The woman who wanted a toilet

GenderWater and sanitation
Photo: Peter Caton/Tearfund

By Milind Ghatwai

When Anita Narre left her in-laws’ home because it had no toilet, the residents of the village of Zitudhana were shocked. Defecation in the open was usual even among the few graduates in the village and those who own big houses and tractors, so the new bride’s decision made news in the community.

But Anita would not change her mind. If her husband Shivram wanted her back, he had to build a toilet for her. ‘I did not do that to become famous. I did what I felt strongly about,’ she says. The 24-year-old returned eight days later after Shivram constructed a toilet in their house with the gram panchayat’s help (the gram panchayat is a self-governing group for the village).

Anita’s unusual determination led to great change in sanitation in the region, doing what years of government campaigns could not achieve, because other women followed her lead and demanded toilets in their homes. Without someone else setting an example, the women say they could never have put their foot down, despite the inconvenience of having no choice but to relieve themselves in the semi-darkness just before dawn and in the early evening.

The signs of change are evident in the village. Most houses in Zitudhana have a toilet or are in the process of getting one. People have learned to joke about their toilet habits, and how the elders feel claustrophobic in the new cubicles because they were used to open-air latrines. ‘Earlier, we tried to persuade villagers but they rarely showed any interest. Now, everyone wants a toilet,’ says village sarpanch Lalita Narre (as sarpanch she is the elected head of the village’s gram panchayat).

Anita spent most of her youth in a town 15 km away from her husband’s village. The places are not very different from one another, but her father’s house had a toilet. Her father stood by his daughter when she returned home two days after her wedding. ‘My daughter was not doing anything wrong,’ he said. He was not afraid of people’s disapproval, he said, because he was aware of the government scheme to build toilets and was confident that his son-in-law would meet the request. ‘I knew Shivram is honest and hardworking,’ he said.

Shivram appealed to the gram panchayat for financial help. ‘We were more worried that Shivram would feel devastated if people came to know that his wife had left him and he had no money to fulfil her demand,’ said the sarpanch’s husband Manohar.

The panchayat acted because they sympathised with Shivram, who was raised by his widowed mother, a daily wage labourer. And then, a few months later, all the adults who vote for the panchayat decided to award Anita a small cash prize for raising awareness on an important matter. She dramatically brought the issue of sanitation to everyone’s attention for the first time. Since then, she has become an ambassador for sanitation campaigns at district level.

Article adapted from ‘Cleaning Agent’ by Milind Ghatwai, published 26 February 2012 in Endeavour magazine © The Indian Express Ltd. All rights reserved. Please note that the photograph above is not of Anita Narre.


Discussion questions

  • It was not a desire for better health that led the people of Zitudhana to change their sanitation practices. What was it?
  • Why did the gram panchayat help Shivram build a toilet?
  • How important was the support of Anita’s father?
  • The women in the village wanted better sanitation. How can women gain confidence to take action, like Anita did?

Ideas for using this article

  • Read it with a group of people interested in improving sanitation and hygiene. Use the discussion questions.
  • Read or retell the story in your own words to women who live without good sanitation. What do they think about what Anita did?
Milind Ghatwai