The Nirmal Bharat Great WASH Yatra: what a long, strange and wonderful journey it has been


WSSCC's Maria Fernandez talks to women and girls about menstrual hygiene management during the Yatra.We are nearing the end, with just days to go before the end of the magical and mystical trip known as the Nirmal Bharat Yatra – called by some the Great WASH Yatra.

Never before has India, indeed the world, seen so many people come together for water, sanitation and hygiene in a single, coordinated, travelling manifestation. Already 100,000 people have attended; 109 school trainings have occurred; and 300-plus articles have been written about this unique happening.

All at once, the Yatra is about toilets, taps and sanitary pads. It is also about Bollywood, sports and politics. It is about health and dignity and economic empowerment for hundreds of millions of Indians without safe sanitation, and the solidarity that binds them and all of the 2.5 billion people desiring ... yearning ... demanding a clean, safe and private place to take care of their “daily needs.”

Euphemisms aside, to poop and to pee is something that we all do, but we see now that the colours of sanitation are a kaleidoscope. While shit (a more authentic and powerful word than its functional brethren, “faeces”, “excrement”, “human waste”) is brown, and pee is yellow, the Yatra reminds us that menstrual blood is red. But do we really need such a reminder in the world we live in?

For sanitation, we do. The Yatra showed us why, in painting broad strokes to highlight the 300 million Indian women who suffer shame and pain because of their menses. Journalist Rose George also showed us why in an eloquent and elegant report on just one of those 300 million, Neelam, a 14-year-old girl.

“She has a narrow, pretty face. Her hair is long and black. Her uniform has been torn and
repaired. This August, she got stomach pains. She had eaten some street food, so thought the pains were due to that. Nothing unusual. But the pains continued in her abdomen, for hours and hours. Finally she went to the bathroom, and there she saw blood. And she was terrified. She was truly scared, because she knew what it was. It meant that she had what her mother had [her mother who had passed away 9 years before] and it meant that she was dying. Really. She had reached the age of 14 without knowing that one day she would bleed and it would be normal.”

So it is for Neelam and millions like her, in India, Africa and elsewhere, that the Yatra came to be. It is the stuff of WASH advocacy in action written large, a colourful carnival and celebratory mega-campaign that has traversed 2,000 km across five Indian states, the last stop being this weekend in Bettiah – in Bihar, India, with 100 million people and gigantic sanitation needs. Figures from 2010 show that just 25 percent of rural households having some kind of sanitation facilities there.

But it is more than a carnival. The serious sustainability from something like the Yatra comes from its work in schools; teachers and students have shown the kind of excitement and enthusiasm that one really believes will lead to behaviour change.The Yatra has also been the scene of new research on thoughts, opinions and attitudes by women and girls about their menstrual hygiene management.

In a move to popularize and raise awareness about menstrual health and hygiene among the women, the State of Bihar will provide sanitary napkins at a nominal cost in rural areas of its 10 districts. This initiative is under the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH) scheme a part of the National Rural Health Mission. A bundle of five packs of sanitary napkins at Rs.6 each will be given to women in rural areas of 10 districts.

The scheme is soon to be launched in Vaishali, Aurangabad, Rohtas, Kaimur, Bhojpur, Buxar, Saran, Darbhanga, Munger and Gaya districts. In Vaishali, the napkins would be manufactured by a self-help group, while in other districts these would be produced by Hindustan Latex Limited, the country’s largest producer of condoms.

So awareness is being raised, and action is occurring in the great and diverse country that is India. The Yatra fits well with the country’s traditions, and its traditional father, Mahatma Gandhi. In Bettiah, the Yatra culminates, more than six weeks after it was launched on Gandhi’s birthday on 2 October in New Delhi. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of independence, was no stranger to sanitation, by the way. He came to Bettiah in West Champaran, India, for the first time in 1917. Gandhi's historic visit to Champaran was opposed by the British rulers. An order asking him to leave Champaran was served upon him as soon as he arrived. Gandhi defied the order. After considerable struggle the Government was compelled to lift the ban on Gandhi's stay here. For the first time on Indian soil Satyagraha (Non-Violence) was successfully put to the test and subsequently gave birth to the nationwide non-co-operation movement.

Gandhi was one of the earliest advocates of sanitation in India, saying that sanitation was more important for India than freedom! The Yatra route and journey seeks to evoke that vision for action and change. His spirit lives in so many ways, not the least in many of the people involved with the Yatra. With some fanfare and a new sanitation ambassador, Bollywood actress Vidya Balan, the Yatra took off. It drew hugely important support from the Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh. It has attracted Chief Ministers, Collectors, Chief Executive Officers and many more besides the high ranking officials in places where it has stopped. We’ve seen acrobats and fire eaters, men and women, young and old, the able and differently able, girls and boys, cricket stars and aspiring song and dance champions. All have embraced the Yatra.

The Yatra culminates on 19 November, known by an increasing number of people as World Toilet Day. Or at least until the very last one of those 2.5 billion people has a toilet, loo or latrine – the name doesn’t matter, as Shakespeare once said. To have one to use would indeed be sweet.

Neelam showed us that it is the individual stories that punch through the lights and the noise and remind us why we, WSSCC and the Yatra originators WASH United and Quicksand along with forward-thinking and generous donors like the Swiss Development Cooperation, are committed to the themes of World Toilet Day.

WSSCC has been conducting ground-breaking research with women and girl participants at the Yatra stops on the subject of menstrual hygiene management. Asked for the very first time to share their views, concerns, fears, needs and ideas – the words poured forth in a river of emotions. Of 426 school girls interviewed, we found not a single one that wanted to change their sanitary materials – pads if they had them, rags if they didn’t -- at school. Female teachers and nurses who worked in schools and clinics had the same experience. Worse still, many chose to stay at home in order to avoid the embarrassment, pain, shame and discomfort that comes every month with their periods.

We found time and time again that the girls reported they could not talk about their periods at home, at school or even with friends in an open manner. In India, 23% of girls drop out of school when they reach puberty, according to a study by Plan India and AC Nielson. World Toilet Day demands safe and appropriate toilet facilities to keep girls in school. The partners in the Yatra and the thousands of women and girls participating demand it as well.

November 19 may be the end of the Yatra, but it is not the end of the road. There will be more Yatras. There will be more World Toilet Days. There will be millions of people and thousands of concerned NGOs, community groups, government officials and even companies fighting for these issues. We won’t stop until health, wealth and dignity are a reality for the billions of people without safe sanitation and hygiene. We will depart Bettiah, Bihar, more committed than ever before. Our road will be long, and it will be winding. As the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore reminds us:

“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark."

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