Faith-based, water-focused festival presents extraordinary opportunity to raise awareness among millions of people of the life-changing benefits of better hygiene
The largest human gathering on Earth is assembling in India this month as tens of millions of people from across the country and around the world make their way to the city of Prayagrajfor the centuries-old Hindu festival known as Kumbh Mela.
At the center of the celebration are the sacred waters of the Triveni Sangam, at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati Rivers, in which pilgrims wash off their sins through ritual bathing.
Some 150 million people are anticipated to attend the 55-day event (January 14 to March 4), drawn by the words, inspiration and activities of faith leaders.
The UN’s Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) will be there as well, working with faith leaders to build awareness of the role that clean water, sanitation and hygiene play in supporting human health and improving prospects for a better life.
It is a message that is hoped to resonate strongly with festival participants, the vast majority of whom are from rural communities across India where the lack of toilets, widespread open defecation and poor hygiene cause illness and death among hundreds of thousands of people each year, and contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, especially among those most vulnerable.
In 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission to provide universal access to toilets and end open defecation across the country. The target date for completion of the five-year program was set at October 2019, the 150thanniversary of the birth of Gandhi, an early and long-standing champion of sanitation in India.
At the heart of the WSSCC-GIWA collaboration is an effort to advance the goals of the Swachh Bharat Mission by changing attitudes and ultimately behaviour. In this endeavour, the inspiration and influence of faith leaders is pivotal in reaching and motivating millions of followers at the Kumbh Mela festival.
“This auspicious event sees tens of millions of pilgrims gathering in one place. As India and the world watch, there is no better place to promote the rights of girls and women through sanitation and hygiene,” said Sue Coates, WSSCC Deputy Executive Director and Programme Director.
In addition to engaging faith leaders in promoting Collective Behaviour Change (CBC) and the principles of Leave No One Behind, the WSSCC-GIWA campaign will advocate for Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), position women as leaders in the effort to ‘cover the last mile’ and prioritize people in the most vulnerable situations.
Engagement of festival-goers on these themes will take place through a variety of venues including live events featuring leaders and celebrities, ceremonies involving mass vow-taking, messages on drinking water stations, the provision of menstruation-friendly changing rooms at the river banks, a Toilet Café and a MHM lab, among others.
The upcoming Grace Summit, to be convened next week (28 January), will be the first event at the Kumbh Mela to be led by women faith leaders. Hailing from different religions, countries, organizations, and fields, renowned women leaders will gather on the banks of the holy Ganga River to discuss and then commit themselves to playing active and collaborative roles in ensuring the goals of the Swachh Bharat Mission are met and maintained and that women and girls are uplifted everywhere, including through the elimination of the stigma around menstrual hygiene management.
WSSCC also supported the Gandhian Resurgence Summit, a celebration in honor of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and his emphasis on the crucial importance of sanitation and hygiene. The summit was convened in mid-January to inspire the opening of hearts and minds to the Gandhian philosophy of personal conviction and collective action towards conquering that which seems unconquerable, in this case, the threats that loss of natural resources such as water poses to human well-being.
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