By Anuradha Sahni
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
To take you on her victory lap, this 65-year-old woman will guide you past the 200 toilets now visible in the winding back alleys of her out-of-the-way village in one of India's drought-prone, neglected regions. Other water-protection projects lie ahead.
JALAUN, India (WOMENSENEWS) Small, tin-doored toilet units are the hallmark of a sanitation revolution here in this village in the neglected region of Bundelkhand.
Its leader is 65-year-old Mula Devi.
She modestly uses one end of her nylon sari to cover her face in the presence of any male, but she is bold about her cause. "People tease me and say that every toilet door should carry my photograph, but nothing would make me more proud," she says with a smile.
Mula Devi's leadership began about 15 years ago, when a nongovernmental advocacy group, the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, based in the neighboring town of Orai, began grassroots interventions in the region.
One idea it brought was for people to set up self-help group that could initiate tiny businesses.
In Mula Devi's group of 12 people each one began depositing about $50 each until they had enough money to start a so-called bangle business.
"This was how I could get my four sons and one daughter settled in life," Mula Devi recalls. "They are all married now!"
Sufia Begum, a coordinator for Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, says sanitation was not among the first priorities of Bhimnagar's residents and open defecation was the way of life.
Few local women were willing to broach such an issue in a village meeting. Less off-putting issues --such as water storage--came up first.
"Children would run in from the playing field for a glass of water, and dip their tumblers into the drinking water pot with their dirty hands, contaminating the entire pitcher," recalls Mula Devi. "So we talked about the importance of keeping long-handled dippers, so that people could pour out a glass of water without bringing their fingers into contact with it."
Her exposure to the outside world encouraged Mula Devi to consider her surroundings with new eyes. She saw pools of stagnant water, children defecating outside their homes, overflowing sewers. She listened to presentations on water safety.