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Published on: 10/03/2020

It took one painful road trip for me to question the incredulous systems which expect a women to ‘adjust’ (read tighten pelvic muscles when you feel the pressure) when there are no clean toilets on highways or in the worst case scenario no toilets at all. Back in 2013, I didn’t feel so ‘empowered’ to talk about matters of pee or poo but I had a nagging sense of discomfort about the sheer lack of planning about sanitation facilities for women not only on our highways but also in our cities.

Indian women with sanitary products (Photo credit: Rudrani Ghosh photography)

This discomfort led me to dream about the possibility of setting up a service for building and maintaining highway toilets in India.  I was lucky to get through a fellowship offered by The DO School, Germany which believed in my idea and thought it had the potential of becoming a social business. The fellowship gave me a career boost and taught me the tools necessary to develop business plans, proposals, theory of change frameworks, social impact metrics etc. I did not end up building a ‘toilet business’ but I came up with a campaign ‘Loo Watch’ to make public toilets in India safer and inclusive especially for women through audits led by citizens.

Working on this initiative was my hands-on training to work in the WASH sector through the lens of gender equality and inclusion. During this planning, I also found employment at the CLTS Foundation run by Dr Kamal Kar who had their faith in a young woman whose experience in the WASH sector was built on a passion to improve the state of sanitation in her city. 

What does empowerment in action look like? 

To me empowerment means knowing that I have the agency and the tools to try and make changes in the systems which foster inequality. The gender imbalance in the planning and design of WASH services is a known fact. That is why I feel IRC WASH’s She Makes Change campaign is important to ensure women have the knowledge, confidence and skills to advocate for their right to WASH services and to participate in local government decision making.

Due to years of being excluded from decision making processes, we, women quite often do not know what it feels like to have power over structures and norms which result in crippling gender inequality. But thanks to ‘toilets’, I know how liberating it feels to have the right kind of tools to effect change. In 2015, the local municipal body refused to share a list of public toilets in Kolkata when I had visited their office. Due to the opportunities of capacity building I had received by then, I had become more confident about my rights as a citizen, thus I filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act enquiring about the status of public toilets in Kolkata.

Response to my RTI application about the status of public toilets in Kolkata

A few weeks later I received a letter with the full details of public toilets in Kolkata along with complete addresses and names of operators. It didn’t stop there. A few months later I found myself punching the air with joy because the municipal body finally put that list of public toilets on their website! All it needed was a fee of 10 INR (0.014 US$) to make an urban local body take a step towards transparency about the WASH services provided by them.

Investing in women is not a choice but common sense

When I look at my journey as a WASH professional, I believe I’ve had a rather non-traditional entry into the sector which was made possible by a few people and institutions taking a chance on a young woman and providing her with an enabling environment to work on her cause.  By sharing my story, I do not want to convince you to invest in women but I want to show you the possibilities of what could happen when you make an investment in us, who form 50% of this world’s population.

I have seen an immense desire in women to ‘do something’ when working on menstrual health in rural Assam. I have watched women with borrowed smartphones, searching for menstrual cup videos on YouTube after my sessions with childlike excitement. The women wanted to switch because they recognised the problem of disposal in their village which had no waste management facility. I always felt what more could we do to channel this immense potential or desire. Policies and campaigns work, but more important is our faith that with the right support, women from Ganjam in Odisha to Kabarole in Uganda can and will effect systems change.

I know it because I am one of those women. 

Mayuri Bhattacharjee is the 2019 Ton Schouten Award winner and tweets at @Mayuri_tezpur


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