‘Govt Gives Fund For Toilets, Overlooks Maintenance’

Archana K R, a menstrual hygiene and sanitation activist, has been campaigning for increased state funding to keep government school toilets clean and functional

I wear many hats: a ninja representative of Reap Benefit Solve; a change-maker with Change.org Foundation; a network fellow at Youth Ki Awaaz Action and; the founder of Stand4SHE. I am active menstrual hygiene and sanitation campaigner too.

The Union Budget this year has sanctioned ₹1,41,678 crore for Swachh Bharat mission 2.0. It will be great if the authorities concerned also use the money on maintenance of toilets instead of building new structures. Maintenance of school toilets, especially in rural areas, is key to girl child education.

While working with government school students across Karnataka, I found that parents stop sending their daughters to school once they reach puberty, because of inadequate toilet facilities in schools.

Archana KR with girl students inspecting a facility in their school.

As a woman who grew up in Sakleshpur, a town in Hassan district, I have first-hand experience of the appalling state of this basic facility. From Grade 1 to 10th I studied in a Government school. This elementary school had no washrooms. While I enjoyed my school activities, I dreaded having to answer the call of nature in the open. I would even drink less water. I did not see a clean toilet till the age of 17.

Unfortunately, not much has changed over the years. For my work related to ‘active citizenship’, I used to visit schools and hold sessions for Grade 8 and 9 students. During once such session at a government school, I asked my students to guide me to the washroom. The girls reluctantly took me to the teacher’s washroom, supposedly better than the ones meant for students. I was appalled at the condition. The students’ one was worse, with broken door, choked commode and used sanitary pads piled in a corner.

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Constructing a toilet building is important, but its maintenance is even more important as also the behavioural change of the user. I started working with the students of that school on behavioural change and after six months of follow-up, these students took responsibility of their school washrooms. They understood their sanitation rights and they built their DIY solutions. Today, this school is one of the model schools.

Encouraged, I started working towards this end with other schools. I found the main issue is that Government schools don’t have enough funds for maintaining toilet hygiene. They get ₹5,000-25000 maintenance funds per year according to the strength of their students. However, this amount includes school maintenance, like electricity, water supply, teaching aids, wall paint and desk repair among others. Toilet maintenance, obviously, is low on priority.

Archana interacting with schoolgirls

I started an online campaign asking the Karnataka government to increase the funding government schools so that they can regularly clean and maintain toilets, linking the issue to continued girl child education.

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It requires about ₹15,000 per month for a school to provide clean and running water and menstrual hygiene kits to girls. Around 60 percent girls drop out from schools in rural area due to lack of toilets. My aim is to bring these girl students back to the government school.

In my online efforts, I began tagging state education minister S Suresh Kumar on social media and once he responded as well. But soon enough, his office even stopped taking my calls. But I will give not up. As a ‘sanitation ninja’, I owe it to all the kids I have taught.

I started my petition on this working with 300 government schools in Karnataka, training students on behavioural change and management on maintenance issue. I am also running an online campaign with Change.org/SwachhHighwayToilets supported by almost 1,30,000 people. The campaign demands from the authorities to ensure that Swachh Bharat toilets for women are functional, safe, and clean on NH-75 in Karnataka.

If we make ourselves heard in time, we have a golden chance of ensuring funding to keep toilets clean all year round. No child will ever have to squat in the open again.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

#SheToo – ‘Construction Workers Harassed Verbally'

A construction labourer in Jharkhand, Nirmala says the toughest days of her work come when she is menstruating. There is hardly time to change soiled clothes and no access to toilets or privacy. And if you slow down the pace of work, the contractor and his sidekicks make sexist taunts.   It’s not difficult to get work on construction sites in Deoghar (Jharkhand) where realty projects have picked up over the last five or six years. My husband, 32, moved to Delhi for better wages, but I work in Deoghar, which is near our native place. Although it is easy to find work – you only need to reach early at the town square and wait to be selected by contractors – the eight-hour work schedule can be back breaking. But we need the extra income if we want our two children to get good education. There are separate wages for a ‘mistri’ (skilled) and ‘beldar’ (unskilled) labour. Women, always unskilled, are paid lesser than men, but we have no grouse there. This is a conventional division. Santhal (read tribal) women get picked first as they are stronger. Women who accompany their husbands are picked next. Single women are the last to be hired, sometimes at a price lower than the ruling daily wage.


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Our ordeal begins after that. The contractors and their sidekicks keep mouthing insults at women workers for slowing down the pace of work. Their choicest abuse is: ‘Tera mahina chal raha hai kya’ (Are you having your period)? This is followed by chuckles and snide remarks from all around. At times, you feel like throwing the mortar at their faces, but then you will get blacklisted and never get work. Three years ago when my second child was very small, I would bring him to the site and breastfeed him during work. Many an eye would follow me while I took him for feeding. Each time the child cried, it will draw remarks, either lewd or insulting. Rarely would someone intervene and scold the lechers. I have myself never encountered a sexual proposition but yes, these are common at our kind of work. Tribal women, for instance, are considered easy game by these wolves. It also depends on the contractor. Many of them have a reputation. Usually at the end of the workday when wages are distributed, they target their victims who are coerced by them. Everyone knows it but nobody speaks about it. The golden rule is to keep to yourself, ignore catcalls and physical overtures like squeezing your hand. I also never tell people that my husband is away in Delhi. The toughest days at work are when I have my period. We do not have access to expensive sanitary napkins; we wash and reuse old clothes. But the eight-hour work plus nearly two hours of travel time can be very stressful. Even when you get some time to change or clean, there are no places where one can do it. Almost always, we have no access to a washroom. Because of heavy construction activity, there is no empty space to relieve ourselves. There are so many people, vehicles and raw materials lying around which can make changing our soiled clothes, let alone relieving ourselves, a nightmare. The situation is worse when you are working near marketplaces or at a renovation project. Public washrooms are meant only for men; women have to find corners and squat sometimes in full public view. The men ogle while women passersby turn up their noses at us in disgust. Nobody asks us how we feel. I suppose farm labourers have a better life. Even though they get three-fourths of our wages, they get food twice. The wives of farm owners are very considerate and give them access to their washrooms on tough days. But farm work is difficult to get and is seasonal. Besides, the farms are shrinking by the day; even big farmers say the yield is no longer worth the labour. It is my children and husband, who calls up daily, who keep me going. My husband trusts me, he has no issues that I work with other men. He is a kind soul, unlike many of the drunken husbands in the village who beat their wives. He has promised to shift us soon to Delhi, where my children can get English education. I have met some NGO women who come to visit our village and teach us about menstrual hygiene and personal healthcare. I want my daughter to also take up such a role when she grows up and fight for the rights of female construction workers.  ]]>

‘I Must Break Menstrual Taboo. Period’

Apart from facing numerous challenges for being a woman in this country, the very mention of periods or menstrual cycle is a taboo. Prachi Kaushik —a 33-year-old, Delhi-based social entrepreneur decided to break this taboo. She runs an enterprise ‘Vyomini’ which produces biodegradable and low-cost sanitary napkin, Rakshak, manufactured by marginalised women.   I grew up in a country, where sanitary napkins are still sold in black, opaque poly-bags. Talking about periods has been a taboo in our country. For an Indian woman, periods are ‘those five days’ when life suddenly comes to a halt. Naturally, working on menstrual hygiene would not be a cakewalk — I was well-aware of the enormity of the task. Luckily, I had done my homework. Before starting on this project, I had worked with hundreds of underprivileged women educating them on the issue of menstrual health. But, taking this idea to another level by starting an enterprise single-handedly had its own risk factors and apprehensions. The words ‘period’ and ‘sanitary napkins’ were enough to make people squirm. Besides this, convincing my family of this ‘strange’ choice of career was another task. I was 32 and unmarried. Quitting my contractual job with the Delhi government, and keeping the idea of marriage aside — to start a social enterprise — were not easy decisions. I did not belong to an affluent family and could not afford to take such risks. Nevertheless, I was motivated. I had interacted with hundreds of poor women, who even though, understood the importance of menstrual hygiene, could not afford pack of sanitary napkins for Rs 20. Even today, women across our country of ‘jugaad’ are compelled to use harmful products as sanitary pads. They use sandbags, plastics, papers, leaves, ash and a plethora of other unthinkable things. In 2016, I started my social enterprise — Vyomini, with the help of some friends. My team and I soon began work on the design of the napkin. We made sure that the napkin was completely bio-degradable and contained no plastic fibre. We employed women from economically weaker sections for manufacturing the napkins and giving them a final shape. After two years of rigorous work, we finally launched — Rakshak, earlier this year. It is a low-cost, biodegradable sanitary napkin, with prices starting from Rs 5 per napkin. Eminent people have come forward to promote the cause of ending ‘period poverty’. Member of Parliament, Meenakshi Lekhi launched Rakshak; and Mrs Worldwide India 2018 — promoted Rakshak on International Menstrual Hygiene Day. We have conducted workshops across the country to educate women about the importance of menstrual health and the hazards that non-biodegradable sanitary napkins pose to the environment. In Delhi and NCR alone, we have reached out to over 2 lakh women. After two years of launching Vyomini, sanitary napkin production plants are being run in Jhajjar and Hisar in Haryana; Sultanpur Mazra in Delhi; Bhubaneshwar in Odisa and Navi Mumbai in Maharashtra. So far, we have sold 5 lakh units of ‘Rakshak’, produced, marketed and manufactured by more than 500 underprivileged women. The product has also reached to women in Bangladesh and Nepal. People now call me ‘Pad Woman’.  People may call me a young achiever, but if we look at the larger picture, this is an achievement for the society as a whole.    ]]>