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By Renu Kshetry
As far back as she can remember, Lakhani Devi Rishidev’s family has never owned their own land.
“How could they ever save to buy land? They never even had enough to feed the family,” she says.
The stalwart 60-year-old grandmother of seven lives with her sons and their families in a flimsy hut on public land, around 400 kilometres east of the Nepali capital Kathmandu.
All 38 huts in the community accommodate families from the Dalits – members of India’s lowest castes, and until recently, there was not a single toilet to be found there.
As with all adults in the community, Ms Rishidev would defecate in the open, often in other landowners’ field, and while focusing on her family, she has been scarred by the indignity of it all.
“When I was caught [defecating in the fields], the landowners would often beat me up,” she says.
“I was humiliated. I was angry at myself, but I didn’t have a choice, I just had to live with it all.”
“Our lives were no better than stray animals,” she continues. “But what angers me most is how others ignored us. Is it because we are poor Dalits? Are we a liability for them?”
Children would defecate in front of their homes, putting them in dire risk of deadly infections and illnesses.
“Nearly every house had at least one sick child, especially during the rainy season,” Ms Rishidev explains.
Over the years, she learned to cope, but when the children were chased naked through the fields and beaten with sticks, there was little they could do about it.
“I was so angry at our helplessness,” she says. “Are we not human?”
Yet with support through WSSCC’s Global Sanitation Fund and UN-Habitat, the Government is working to ensure safe, clean toilets and better housing nationwide.
The National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan that was launched in 2011 states that every household must have access to a safe toilet with permanent sub-structure. The Government of Nepal aims to get one toilet per household across the country, but landless people, and those living in extreme poverty pose unique challenges.
In Ms Rishidev’s community, local authorities are paying community members to build the toilets themselves, and over three months 18 community toilets were built, along with clean drinking water.
Ram Chandra Mandal, from the local Rangeli Municipality, paid the local builders from his own pocket before being reimbursed by the state.
“We are planning to roll this out across all our landless communities here,” Mr Mandal explains. He has already set aside funds for that and started the construction of another community toilet behind the Agriculture Office. The Rangeli Municipality has also started the construction of public toilets in the bus park at Gausala on Koshi Highway. Both the community toilet and public toilet at the bus park will come into operation from next month.
The Ministry of Urban Development in Kathmandu recently approved the building of the first 28 new homes, and back in the community, Ms Rishidev watches as the foundations are laid for her new home.
“We never thought we would ever see this in our lives,” she says.