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BANGALORE, India (WOMENSENEWS)--A rural woman's right to an indoor toilet is more important than staying in a marriage without such a necessity.
That's the message that Bollywood actress Vidya Balan is spreading in a national TV ad campaign sponsored by the government's year-old Total Sanitation Campaign.
In one ad, Balan plays the part of an educated villager who praises another villager for leaving her husband's home, which lacked an indoor latrine, and returning to her parent's house. Balan's character goes on to say that the husband took note of the issue and promptly built an indoor latrine.
The ad is inspired by the real-life story of Anita Narre, who stormed out of her husband's home two days after getting married in May 2011 for the same reason. Her husband immediately built an indoor toilet with assistance from the village council, or panchayat.
Her example is credited with inspiring a revolution of sorts in the villages of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where the government received hundreds of applications asking for assistance in building indoor latrines.
Pushing Marriage-Minded Men
The Total Sanitation ad campaign offers an awareness backdrop to an initiative in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh that urges marriage-minded men to install toilets as a fundamental act of courtship.
In late May, hundreds of couples in the Sehore district were married in mass wedding ceremonies held over several days, sponsored by the government of Madhya Pradesh. This year grooms faced one hitch to getting hitched: they had to submit pictures of themselves taken near a toilet in their house. If they couldn't, a wedding wouldn't be allowed.
In the Sehore Block, one part of the larger district of the same name, Rajiv Khare, head of the local council, said that of the 635 couples from his area, 300 built new toilets. "The rest already had toilets in their homes," he said in a phone interview.
G. S. Chauhan, an official affiliated with the district sanitation campaign, said of the 2,700 couples married under the scheme in Sehore so far this year, 1,500 constructed new toilets.
The national and state governments offered subsidies to the prospective grooms that paid for as much as 90 percent of the constructing costs.
The mass marriages are conducted under a program that began in April 2006 and offers low-income couples about $250 to help pay for wedding expenses, including gifts for the groom's side of the family. The translation of the program's name, Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojana, is Chief Minister's Giving Away Your Daughter Scheme.
India has the dubious distinction of accounting for 59 percent of the 1.1 billion people across the world who defecate in the open, according to a report by the World Health Organization.
The lack of this basic infrastructure spreads disease, heightens women's risk of being molested and is implicated in the country's high rate of maternal mortality.
India's public-health promotion of indoor plumbing, under the Total Sanitation Campaign, which was recently renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (literally: Clean India Campaign), has been going on since 1999.
The "No Toilet, No Bride" campaign in vthe state of Haryana, for example, exhorted women not to marry into families with no indoor toilets. The Haryana campaign resulted in 330 village councils (out of 6,083) declaring the area under their jurisdiction as free from open defecation within a year of the campaign.
Shifting Campaign's Focus
In Sehore, where only 32 percent of households have latrines, according to the 2011 Indian census, administrators decided to shift the focus to men.
Ranjana Kumari is director of the Center for Social Responsibility (CSR), a New Delhi-based nonprofit focused on gender issues that has operated latrine construction programs in a number of Indian villages.
In an email interview, Kumari said it makes sense for toilet-building efforts to target men "because they control not only the household's economy but also the household's decisions."
Kumari added that rural sanitation should have been accomplished as part of post-independence developmental efforts over the last 65 years. "Unfortunately, even in the 21st century, we are still talking about who, how and where of sanitation."
The maternal death rate in Madhya Pradesh was 310 per 100,000 live births in 2010-11, said Kumari, higher than the national average of 200 and far from Norway's maternal mortality rate of 7.
"At CSR, we've seen firsthand while working in rural programs how bad sanitary conditions can be," said Kumari. "To answer nature's call, women in such villages have to step out before sunrise and after sunset, so as to avoid being seen. Any toilet needs at other times of the day are impossible to execute. The suffering of these women increases at times of bad health or during pregnancy."
Most of the 2,700 in Sehore married under the program so far this year were Hindu, in proportion to the demographics of the area. The official in charge of the program, K. P. Tripathi, said in a telephone interview that the state will probably conduct mass wedding ceremonies in August that will attract more Muslim couples.
Bhakti Bapat Mathew is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore, India. She writes for Indian and international publications, including The Women's International Perspective, The National, Business Standard, The Hindu, Good Housekeeping and Mint. Her website is www.bhaktiweb.com.
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