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Women’s Empowerment: Rural Toilet Builder and Community Sanitation, Phase One

Project period:  28/07/2014 to 27/07/2016

Addressing the needs of sanitation in India: Scoping and context establishment for women’s empowerment

Basic sanitation facilities are inaccessible to 40 percent of the world’s population. The call to address the Sixth Sustainable Development Goal of “Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” has never been so imperative, particularly in a nation such as India where open defecation is most rampant (Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals, accessed June 14, 2015). Girls and women in rural India are disproportionately affected by limited access to adequate sanitation (WSSCC et al. 2013). Despite the numerous attempts to counteract the practice of open defecation in India, the kind of attitudinal and behavioral change necessary to end open defecation on a large and sustainable scale have yet to bring about widespread toilet use (Coffrey et al. 2014). The limited extent to which sanitation projects have achieved social inclusivity among marginalized communities is recognized as a contributing factor to the persistence of poor sanitation in India (UN Water 2008; Coffrey et al. 2014).

This paper will discuss the early stages of an intervention that places a specific focus on engaging women in rural villages within India. The project, Women Empowerment: Sanitation (WE: Sanitation) is currently in implementation in seven states throughout India, proposes that the goal of improving sanitation may best be achieved by empowering women through skill development and life skill education. By training India’s most unskilled population to build, use and maintain toilets, the problems of poor sanitation, community buy-in, as well as unskilled labor may be simultaneously addressed. While WE: Sanitation, is currently in implementation in seven states throughout India, this paper will discuss findings from the early stages of the intervention in rural villages within the Indian states of Karnataka, Gujarat, and Goa, where previous sanitation efforts have failed to take hold. 

Introducing potential solution: cVET + LEE approach to skill training

Empowerment literature indicates that empowering women with equal economic opportunity and the knowledge and skills to make informed life decisions are the most effective ways to reduce poverty within communities (Asian Development Bank 2014). Preliminary outcomes of the WE Project are consistent with this claim.

The proposed approach of the WE: Sanitation Project

Working towards the objective of socially inclusive TVET, the Amrita cVET model was first implemented on a large scale through the Women Empowerment (WE) Project from 2012 to 2014 in rural areas throughout Kerala and Tamil Nadu (Transtec 2014). The purpose of the WE Project, funded in part by the United Nations Democracy Fund, was to economically and socio-democratically empower women through vocational education and life enrichment education (LEE) using Amrita cVET. The project targeted women who self-identified as struggling toward financial independence. By training more than 4,000 women living in rural areas throughout India, Amrita-cVET demonstrated its capacity to reach this marginalized group in India. Amrita cVET also demonstrated tangible gains with respect to the participants’ economic and socio-democratic empowerment (Transtec 2014).

This approach was adopted to train and empower women’s SHGs to build, maintain, and promote their own toilets in order to achieve “open-defecation free” (ODF) status in their communities

Pilot Study: Deployment in Odisha village

Village of Bhoi Sahi, Odisha

Implementation of Amrita cVET as a means towards ending open defecation was initially piloted in the village of Bhoi Sahi, Odisha, under the banner “WE: Sanitation,” an extension of the WE Project. In training women who lack access to adequate sanitation to learn and work together in building toilets for themselves, the ultimate goal of WE: Sanitation is to empower the entire community to construct a toilet for every house in the village, to end open defecation wherever possible. 

In Odisha, over a 3-month period, 20 women were trained to build toilets for their households and demonstrated improvements in their daily sanitation and hygiene practices. Prior to WE: Sanitation, there were no toilets in the village of Bhoi Sahi, Odisha. Women had to walk more than a kilometer to find a secluded area to relieve themselves, and restricted their bowel movements to once before dawn, once after dark, and for safety reasons, only in the company of other women or female family members. Despite these apparent challenges, according to the women of Bhoi Sahi, access to a proper toilet was never perceived as a basic need. This finding reflects a pervasive lack of awareness of the personal health and environmental impacts of open defecation (Coffrey et al. 2014). The preference for open defecation is also precisely why sanitation efforts to provide toilets where there are none, often fail to transcend deeply rooted attitudinal and behavioral norms (ibid).

Project participants in Bhoi Sahi study the course on the tablet and work with expert mason to learn toilet building

Since successfully completing the Amrita cVET course by working together to build 20 toilets for everyone in the group, the first batch of toilet builders went on to build 35 toilets for the remaining families of the Bhoi Sahi village. In many instances, while the women building the toilet received a payment for their services from the homeowners, members of the household joined in on the building of their own toilet. Additionally, several students reported that they continue to educate themselves further and investigate opportunities for sanitation improvement in their community. 

Initial scale-up

Following the successful completion of the pilot study in Bhoi Sahi, WE: Sanitation was expanded to seven villages in seven states throughout India: Karnataka, Goa, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. These communities also received the LEE curriculum and started to implement the lessons learned. The project was replicated in these seven new locations and impact assessment research was conducted over the course of the remainder of the project timeline. This concluded the first 24 months of the WE: Sanitation program.

To date, over 120 women have built over 120 toilets for their communities, and will continue to construct more until their village reaches “Open Defecation Free” Status.

StateTB Students# Toilets Built
Himachal Pradesh1013
Uttar Pradesh1814

Success highlight:

On March 28th, 2015, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi met the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at his residence in Delhi. The Prime Minister expressed his gratitude to Amma for her great contribution to the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) and requested her to initiate a toilet construction project in the villages of five states of the Ganga river basin, to which Amma agreed. Read more on the Prime Minister’s website.

Findings and Future efforts

Access to proper sanitation is most critical for women and children, who also often lack the voice in their household or community to express themselves. This makes it difficult to assess and then address the true impact of the problem. Empowering women through skill development proposes that the goal of improved sanitation may be achieved through the goal of empowering women through skill development and life skill education. The union of these sustainable development goals leverages an approach that is collaborative and socially inclusive. Successes of the WE Project demonstrated immense potential in developing the inter- and intrapersonal capabilities within women to address the problems around them by becoming economically and socially empowered (Transtec 2014). As WE Project approach of empowering women through skill development is applied to the problem of sanitation, preliminary findings suggest positive results in the way of placing this generally marginalized population at the center of the solution to end open defecation. 

This project is far from complete. The full extent of the cVET + LEE methodology for empowering women to achieve ODF villages was not yet deployed. The lessons learned from the pilot and initial scaling to 7 other communities produced a wealth of research that needs to be consolidated and analyzed. Results from this analysis will inform the 2nd phase of this project, planned for later in 2016. The next phase of the project will expand to at least 15 locations in different regions and attempt to build 200 more toilets across the country. It will also include strong community mobilization and outreach programs, in addition to the masonry skills taught in the course.  We are also exploring the inclusion of other vocational skills related to sanitation to assist in income generation. Integration of the next phase of WE: Sanitation with other NGO operations will also help to provide the communities with more holistic services in sustainable development.

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