To witness the workings of a powerful women's campaign, pay a visit to the remote villages of Rewa district in Madhya Pradesh. Here a sanitation revolution, part of the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), is taking shape in the guise of the 'Maryada Baccho Andolan' (Save our Honor movement), and at the helm of this initiative are the 'Agua Bahinis', or Sister Leaders.
Trained under the TSC, each woman of the programme vows to train five others. Once she identifies them, she ties a 'raksha sutra' (safety thread) around their wrists, saying, "Now you have become an 'Agua Bahini' and you will keep this on till you get a toilet constructed in your own house." The thread is a constant reminder of their goal - achieving an open-defecation free village.
Elaborating on the inception of the programme and the idea behind it, Prashant Singh, Technical Specialist, District Poverty Initiatives Programme (DPIP), Rewa, says, "Until now, the TSC was just another government scheme for the villages, where the allurement of a prize or subsidy was the tool used to motivate rural folk. In spite of spreading the word about the cost effective, convenient and useful Leach Pit sanitation technology, it was difficult to create public participation in the Nirmal Gram Yojna. Those who were engaged in this TSC project know this well." (In a Leach Pit toilet, two pits are constructed. When the first pit is in use, the other one is closed. Once one gets filled up, it is closed and the other one is brought into use. Within 15-18 months, the excreta gets totally decomposed and becomes a bio-fertiliser, which can be used in the fields.)
The need for a better-planned strategy to reach out to the people was therefore felt. That's how the concept of an 'Agua Bahini' was formulated. The programme took off in 2006. "Women who had natural qualities of leadership were identified and imparted training under the TSC," reveals Singh. It was decided that a trained woman would be called an 'Agua Bahini'. Her goal would be to involve the local village women, who would ensure that each home had a toilet constructed, thereby helping the village to become open-defecation free. That's how the idea of each one training five others emerged.
This process was developed on the lines of creating a tradition - the 'Agua Bahini' would tie a 'raksha sutra' around the wrists of the five other women they selected, which would in turn give them a sense of belonging to the community of 'Agua Bahinis'.
But while the planned initiative sounded perfect, its implementation was expected to be difficult. According to Dr Manoj Singh, District Manager, DPIP, Rewa, it is always difficult to change old habits and introduce new concepts. "We persuaded then collector, Hari Ranjan Rao, to prepare a pilot project in which women would be included and their participation ensured," he says. "We started training these women with the help of a Dewas-based organisation, Vibhavari."
A beginning was made in the tribal-dominated village of Majhiar, with a population of about 2000. A local woman, Sundariya Kol, 40, invited women in the Sirmour block to join in this sanitation effort, by making a general call: "We are 'Agua Bahinis' intent on saving the lives of our children and protecting the honour of our daughters and daughters-in-law. With 'raksha sutras' tied to our wrist, we announce this crusade. Let's join this movement and try our best to construct toilets in every house in the village."
Throwing light on the sanitation problems faced by the women in the region, Kol observes, "Children and women were the worst affected. While children fell ill, it was not safe for women to travel distances and or go into the forest alone. On many occasions, they have had to face harassment and misbehaviour."
A tribal herself, Kol in association with four other women - Sirvatia, Rajkumari, Lila and Shyamvati - started working on this programme. In order to spread the word about the campaign, the women went around the village singing songs on the theme of 'Maryada Bachao' (Save Your Honour). This mobilisation proved extremely effective. A campaign that began with just five women has 125 members in Majhiar village alone.
Kol and her band of women also travel to nearby villages to spread the message of sanitation. They are called the Yatri Agua Bahinis (travelling sister leaders). When they reach a village they gather the local women and start a meeting in any volunteer's house. Out of curiosity and sometimes after a persuasive invitation, women come out of their homes and participate in these meetings. And, surprisingly, it's the male members of the community that are engaged in preparing tea and refreshments for the visitors! Today, in Rewa, more than 1,200 women have joined in, with the campaign spreading to 50 blocks.
Rewa has a enormous social and economic disparities. But irrespective caste or community, women are coming together and participating in large numbers. In fact, even women belonging to the upper castes have openly accepted Sundariya Kol, a Scheduled Tribe woman, as their leader.
Commenting on this unique phenomenon, Sandeep Naik, State Co-ordinator, Hunger Project, observes, "The caste system is dominant in this region. There is no harmony between the Thakurs, Brahmins and members of the backward communities. So much so, they are not even cordial to each other. But the women have overcome these divides. A beginning was made by the tribal women, and today the campaign is supported by all the communities."
The success of any rural campaign can be assessed by the number of villages coming into its fold. But Naik feels that the real test of success is when the project can develop people as a sustainable resource. Going by both these parameters, the 'Maryada Baccho Andolan' has definitely done very well.
Rajkumari, who is associated with it, says, "We named this movement, 'Maryada Bachao Andolan', which means a movement to protect the integrity and
honour. We have also composed songs for the campaign. In one such song, a woman tells her husband not to buy her jewellery but instead protect her honour by building a toilet."
The construction of toilets and other sanitation-related activities are now in progress in several villages like Sirmor, Java, Raipurkarchuliyan, Naigarhi, Mauganj and Hanumana, across Rewa. In fact, Majiar village has earned the distinction of having a toilet in each household. A mobilisation, which began with one 'Agua Bahini', is now a flourishing people's campaign.