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Their first question to a prospective groom was “Do you have a toilet in your house?” For Dhanabakyam, whose house in Musiri village in Tiruchirapally district was one of the first to have a toilet, there was no way she was going to let her eldest daughter be married off into a house without one. This was in 2002. Having enjoyed the benefits, Dhanabakyam says this was the only condition that she had insisted on. “I told him he could marry my daughter, but only if they had a toilet constructed. They got one built in a month’s time and that’s when I allowed the marriage,” she says.
The Tamil lady may well be the trailblazer of a trend. For more and more women are demanding this, even walking out of their husband’s house because it doesn’t have a toilet. Anita Bai Narre is the face of this story for many. She did walk out in 2011 in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district, and went on to meet the president for doing so and become a brand ambassador for the government’s sanitation campaign. “I was so ashamed that I decided to walk out a day after my wedding,” she recollects. “People would walk by us...I just couldn’t bear it.” This was enough to send husband Shivram scrambling for assistance from the panchayat. He got some money, chipped in with more from his pocket to have a toilet constructed in about a week’s time and bring Anita back home. “I was scared and shocked...ashamed to have my wife walk out,” he says.
Unlike Anita who had a toilet back home, Priyanka Rai, another runaway bride from Kushinagar district in Uttar Pradesh, came from a house without one. Yet she chose to walk out after a month from her husband’s house in April 2012. Here again, it was the ever-present strangers and passing drunkards that convinced her that defecating in the open wasn’t a good idea. “This was unlike back home where I was more comfortable doing the same thing,” she says. This story was printed in the local papers and caught the attention of Sulabh International, an organisation that helped Priyanka’s husband build a toilet and also woo his bride back.
These rebel women are gradually bringing into focus the fact that women have the worst of it, for they can only go out to relieve themselves at the crack of dawn or after sundown. Other than the constant threat of harassment from passing men, the cover of darkness also brings other threats like snakes and scorpions. The situation becomes worse in the monsoon and winter. And it’s not just a rural problem. In urban areas, open defecation, mostly along railway tracks, can be an even more unsettling experience for women given the lack of cover and space. All this has to some extent given a belated boost to the total sanitation campaign. “In Tamil Nadu, we have had girls who were exposed to toilets at their schools pressuring their parents into building one at their homes,” says M. Subburaman, director of SCOPE, a Trichy-based organisation that works on sanitation issues.
While the aforementioned brides have pushed the awareness campaign, even winning cash awards and becoming faces of the sanitation campaign in their states, the more encouraging fallout is that, because of their defiance, more toilets have been built in a year’s time in their villages than in decades. Ask Priyanka Bharti, who walked out of her husband’s home in Uttar Pradesh’s Maharajganj district in April 2012 after just two days and who now features in a TV commercial promoting sanitation along with actress Vidya Balan. “Around 50-60 homes in our area have had toilets constructed. This has also helped reduce the spread of disease,” she says.