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An Unexpected Question: Mandy Moore Advocates for Sanitation in India

September 11, 2015

This morning for breakfast, I joined the PSI India team to learn how they and their partners, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Unilever, are building toilets and developing a sanitation system in Bihar by turning the traditional nonprofit model on its head. PSI India has developed a social enterprise and is treating the open defecation problem like a business problem.

 

The idea is to make toilets convenient, affordable and attractive in a state where 80% of the population currently lives without them.

 

When communities lack basic sanitation, kids die (more than 450,000 did in India last year due to diarrheal disease), people get sick, and girls and women are at greater risk of rape and violence when they’re simply trying to find a private place outdoors to relieve themselves.

 

We piled in the car and drove about an hour to Daniawan, where I was greeted by a dozen or so women and invited to join a meeting they were holding about bringing toilets to their town. They’ve named their group Durga, after the goddess of strength and power.

 

Turns out it’s the perfect name.

 

I was prepared for a quiet start to the conversation, but they jumped right in. They were spirited, smart, determined and outspoken.

 

They spoke passionately about how dangerous, undignified and inconvenient it was to have to relieve themselves in the fields, especially during the rainy season.

 

Having a toilet gave them dignity and respect. And it’s keeping their families – especially kids and older relatives healthier.

 

The group took out a loan through the Centre for Development Orientation and Training (CDOT), a microfinance effort started in 2000 by RR Kalyan, a man so dedicated to serving the needs of women, he invested his own money into opening a first-ever one-stop toilet shop for lower income families.

 

The loans and shops make it possible for people who previously couldn’t afford a toilet to buy one. Oh, and by the way, all of the loans that have been given to construct 400 toilets so far have been paid back in full.

 

At the shop, or sanitation mart, as he calls it, people can choose the toilet model and housing that’s right for them. While this may not be an innovative idea for you and me, in India, one of the main obstacles to building a toilet is that people have to cobble all of the components and tradesmen together from different places — brick layers, pit diggers, cement mixers — and then find all the materials for the toilet separately. It can take up to six months.

 

PSI’s work in sanitation is changing all that. Now people can afford a permanent toilet that’s attractive, that they can afford from a single vendor. And, through another innovative business approach, they benefit from mechanical waste removal and treatment. 

 

But the women aren’t concerned with the inner workings of the business model, what’s important to them is how it’s changed their lives.

 

“Now I have dignity and respect,” said Anita Devi, a woman who covered her head with a printed sari.

 

“It’s convenient,” another chimed in.

 

Towards the end of the meeting, I asked if they had any questions for me. And, they did.  Just one.

 

A woman in a bright pink sari spoke out. I am Lekha she said, “And, what should we say to people who try to make fun of us or shame us for taking a loan for a toilet?”

 

What I loved about this question was that there was no doubt she was getting a toilet, and she knew the obvious benefits to her and family. She only needed a little help thinking through how to respond to the haters.

 

I thought for a moment and we talked about it as a group, I shared that I’d taken a loan for my home and that I thought what she is doing — investing in the health and dignity of her family —is something very admirable. There’s no shame in that. In fact, she’s setting an example for others. I’ll bet in time, they’ll be asking for her help on how to get a toilet in their homes too.

 

She simply smiled.

 
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