It starts with water

Water at the doorstep is the first step in a programme that incorporates sanitation, hygiene, menstrual health and more in some 200 villages

T he shimmering solar panels are an incongruous sight in Gharat, a remote village in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district. They serve a crucial purpose, though, powering the water pump that supplies 24 houses in the village. That makes the water pump the dream child of the women of these houses. They discussed it for a year, saved for another year to pay for it, and now manage its operation themselves, through a committee of 16 women called a water user group (WUG).

The women are part of the Grasiya tribe and, along with the comfort of water on tap, they have added a handful of English words to their lingo: meeting, bathroom, borewell, bank account and more. Both these changes in their lives are due to a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme undertaken by Centre for microFinance, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts.

WASH is the basic premise for community health and CmF has been building relationships with local communities to enable access to water and improve sanitary conditions. For the last four years, it has worked to establish 153 WUGs to manage borewells and pumps. In all, about 2,300 households have come together in these groups, with funds collected for pump projects crossing 4 million. Of these, 26 water schemes similar to the one in Gharat have been completed and a further 31 are in the pipeline.

“Getting water to individual households presents both financial and technical challenges because the water table is low and homes are far apart, adding to the piping cost,” says Pankaj Papnoi, the CmF anchor for WASH interventions. “It takes a lot of meetings to convince people.”

In many cases, it’s the women who are more than prepared to pay for water, and that’s because they bore the brunt of past water shortages. No water at home meant they and their children would bathe at wells that were kilometres away, facing the risk of snakebites and thorns. “When the men want to bathe, they simply say, ‘Fetch water’,” says Puri Bai, a member of the Gharat WUG. “We are the ones who had to walk for 30 minutes to the well, holding babies in our arms and 10-litre pots on our heads.”

Solar-powered leap

The solar-powered water pump promised a huge improvement in the lives of the Gharat women. To get it, they came together to put in 200 a month, collecting about 1,800 per household. CmF got technical help to identify a spot for the borewell, but getting it dug was another challenge.

The road to the village was too narrow at one point for vehicles to pass and the borewell digging machine could not make it through. When the machine came and went back twice, the women went out to clear the road themselves. With all the roadblocks, the water project took two years to complete, but in March 2019 the precious liquid started flowing.

“We run the pump for four hours a day, which means about 40-60 litres per home,” says Hansi Bai, the secretary of the water user group. The group is responsible for pump maintenance and collects 40 a month from each family for a maintenance fund.

Water on tap is a direct connect to better sanitation. Thousands of household toilets built in Sirohi district under the Swachh Bharat Mission were lying unused as there was no water to clean them. Many of them were used for storage or as goat sheds. That is changing.

CmF has been working with more than 10,000 households to revive toilet use, complete unfinished toilets, and to build some 400 new toilets. “We tied up with vendors who guaranteed doorstep delivery of construction materials, and this help was appreciated by the villagers,” says Mr Papnoi.

A meeting of the ‘water user group’ — run entirely by women — in Gharat village in Sirohi district

A key element in making toilets sustainable is the twin-pit technology that allows users to compost waste in one pit while using the other. CmF has trained 700 masons in building twin-pit toilets. Several women joined the training and Megi Bai of Gharat is one of them. She came through the seven-day training and eventually built her own toilet.

Even after water and toilet projects took off, CmF found that the WASH intervention faced seasonal challenges, given that in a poor monsoon year about half the area’s borewells would go dry. “We are exploring ways to make the water schemes sustainable,” adds Mr Papnoi. For that, CmF is piloting two groundwater recharge projects, one in Gharat. The project aims to collect rainwater in a trench so that it feeds into the water table and reduces run offs.

Hygiene is the third leg of the WASH intervention. CmF interacts with communities and schools to bring about behaviour change through basic cleanliness habits: washing hands before eating, using toilets for defecation, and menstrual hygiene.

Showtime for change

Behaviour change is critical, and the toughest to bring about. CmF has reached out to more than 240,000 people to improve daily hygiene habits. And it has made entertainment the vehicle to make hygiene interesting and ingrained. “We do this through two types of theatrical shows, large multi-thematic shows where we address groups of around 2,000 people, and smaller shows at a hamlet or school level,” says Mr Papnoi.

To ensure that the messages went over well, CmF has tied up with professionals and theatre experts who have helped design the shows with lighting, music and live performances. Humour is another element that works, especially with schoolchildren.

At the Government Senior Secondary School in Sivaya, about 100 children sit giggling at the antics of a street artist. Over the course of an hour, the carefully scripted performance helps convey simple but important ideas: washing of hands with soap before cooking or eating, using a ladle in water utensils, covering pots to keep water clean and so on.

Changing ingrained and traditional community habits is difficult but advancing on WASH parameters is essential for social progress. Dealing with the challenge of one and the far-reaching advantages of the other is what CmF is chasing after, and with good results.

Students at the Government Senior Secondary School in Gharat in Sirohi district

The stigma vanishes

The tribal women of south Rajasthan are more isolated than most. Even TV penetration is low and there is little exposure to sanitary products. “Women hide away during their periods because they stain their clothes and there is so much social taboo around the subject,” says Shweta Yadav, the anchor for the menstrual hygiene management (MHM) project being covered by the Centre for microFinance (CMF) through its WASH intervention. “We are trying to break the myths around menstruation so that women and adolescent girls are able to live with dignity.”

The MHM programme has reached out to more than 25,000 women and girls through open conversations that aim to break taboos. There are explanations of body functions, the need for hygiene, why there should be no stigma around monthly periods, the kind of products that are available, how to use and dispose them, etc.

The CmF team engages with the women to talk about menstruation at home so that they have a better chance of getting medical help when necessary. “It’s no longer a dirty subject,” says Dhani Devi of Malera village, who has attended several such sessions. “I talk to my daughter and teach her as well. We use cloth and now we dry the cloth openly in the sun. If we feel unwell, we feel confident to talk about it to the woman doctor.”

CmF also has a counselling programme on menstrual matters so that women feel more comfortable talking to their menfolk. “My husband did not know anything about it earlier,” says Navli Bai. “Now he understands and helps me with housework when I have my periods. I tell my friends to be open with their husbands. There is no shame in this matter.” Says her husband Reda Ram: “I buy the sanitary pads for her when I go to the market.”

The MHM programme is getting some traction amongst schoolgirls. CmF holds counselling sessions with girls aged 10-19 and picks the most communicative among them to act as peer mentors to spread the hygiene message amongst friends and female relatives.

The school programme fills a vital need. Though several state governments, including Rajasthan, have come forward with free sanitary products for girls in government schools, communication was missing. Most of the time, the girls were clueless what to do with the products.

“It is good that CmF is helping our girls become aware of hygiene,” says Indra Chauhan, the principal of the Government Senior Secondary School in Gharat. “Schools also need clean toilets and some method to dispose of sanitary products. This is something the government needs to improve.”