India: No toilet, no bride

In India, there are more cellular phones than toilets as government promotes sanitation Photo: Elaichi-Ohyeah, Flickr

WASHINGTON, July 26, 2013 – Toilets have become an unlikely status symbol in India. The 2011 Indian census revealed that 53 percent of all households do not have indoor toilets but close to 66 percent of people own a cell phone.

More that half of the country’s 1.2 billion people not having access to a toilet creates a pressing sanitation problem, so much so that it is now becoming a requirement for many grooms-to-be.

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The “No Toilet, No Bride,” campaign is only one of several unorthodox methods the national and local Indian governments are employing to encourage citizens to build toilets in their homes and improve sanitation throughout the country.

For centuries, it has been commonplace in India, especially in rural areas, to defecate in the open despite authorities’ push to end the practice. 

This practice, coupled with the lack of indoor toilets and basic infrastructure has several serious consequences. For one thing, it causes the spread of disease, affects maternal mortality rates, and places women and girls at a higher risk of being molested. 

The United Nations (UN) estimates that one out of 10 deaths in India is caused by lack of sanitation. 

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 626 million people in India defecate in the open, comprising 59 percent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practice open defecation. 

Surprisingly, however, the UN claims that toilets are affordable for the majority of the population in India.

The Indian government has been working through its Total Sanitation Campaign as well as several local campaigns, employing unusual tactics to promote sanitation and put an end to open defecation. 

For one thing, the national Total Sanitation Campaign, as well as many local efforts, is focusing on women and marriage. 

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“A rural woman’s right to an indoor toilet is more important than staying in a marriage without such a necessity,” says Bollywood actress Vidya Balan in a national television ad. 

The ad was inspired by the story of Anita Narre, a villager who left her husband two days after their wedding because he did not have an indoor latrine in their home, receiving widespread national coverage. Immediately after Narre left, her husband asked the village council for assistance and built her a toilet. 

Narre’s actions have brought about a kind of revolution and local authorities are taking advantage of it to promote sanitation. For example, the “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign in the state of Haryana, supported by the World Bank, recommends that women do not marry into a family that does not have an indoor toilet. 

Other campaigns are focusing on men, especially in the areas with the largest sanitation problems. An initiative in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh, where only 32 percent of households have indoor toilets, identifies installing a toilet as a fundamental act of courtship for marriage-minded men. 

The same district held government-sponsored mass wedding ceremonies where one of the prerequisites was for the groom to provide authorities with a photograph of himself standing by a toilet in his home.

Indian national and state governments offer marriage-minded men subsidies that can cover up to 90 percent of the cost of building a latrine. 

Other campaigns have taken to public shaming, education, and costly fines. Hygiene classes are now part of school curricula and people caught defecating in public are fined 1000 rupees. The fine is equivalent to $20, which is four times the cost of a porcelain toilet.  

READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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