I am sat on the bus back to the hotel wondering how I can convey the emotions and experiences of today. We are now in Bhopal following a train journey down from Gwalior yesterday. Today we started by travelling across to the village of Amrod in the Sahore District. The welcome we received was a little more subdued than usual, however I feel this was a good thing as it later turned out the villagers would speak more openly about their experiences and concerns which prompted change in the village. Once again though the welcome was warm with our heads been being marked as a sign of respect and each of us handed a coconut as a sign of warmth and love.
Amrod is a village of 570 people in 84 households. Up until The intervention started the village had 100% open defecation. The head of the village described how this had caused many problems to emerge with women finding it difficult to cope with things because there were no private toilets. With WaterAid and implementing partner Samarthan providing knowledge, help and support, the village had managed to construct 75 toilets since November with just a further 9 to complete.
The personal difficulty I have wrestled with whilst on this trip is there has always been a thought in my mind that something was being kept back. Today, Alex (WaterAid supporter from Scottish Water) asked what prompted the decision in the village to make such a change. We were told by the village head that open defecation was not wanted by the women of the village as they were suffering the most. Motivation had been given by the Samarthann and WaterAid who had provided hygiene education and information and access to cheap toilets. Both the Samarthann and WaterAid had worked to engagement most marginalised people in the community to ensure the village could become 100% open defecation free. With construction starting in November, 75 latrines have been constructed leaving just 9 left to build. The target therefore is to achieve complete coverage by March 2013.
"Because of the intervention by WaterAid and the Samarthan have made in the village the suffering described had been overcome so that safety and dignity could be improved as well as personal safety". This was when the penny was starting to drop for me but it was not until a young man who made an impromptu address to the congregation did anyone dare admit it publicly; "we used to look to the government for help and wait for funds, we learnt see could help ourselves. The work started following an incident where a young girl was sexually assaulted".
After the initial addresses, the team I was in were charged with digging two waste pits for latrines. The idea is that a latrine (ground level toilet) has 2 pits whereby once the first pit is full it is covered to allow it to compost with the 2nd pit then in use. Once composted the first pit is dug out, with the compost used on crop fields - and so the cycle continues. Digging the pits was a lot of fun and was nice to be working with the villagers and making a very tangible difference even if it be in the smallest of ways. Another group of supporters were bricklaying to build the walls of the latrine itself. To build one latrine takes a week, and the finished articles looked superb! After a quick interview I took the opportunity to speak with the man who was working with me in the pit we had dug.
I don't believe I have ever met anyone in the flesh who I would call a true inspiration until today. Amarsingh Vishwakama is 65 and lives in the village of Amrod. Until June 2012, Amarsingh was afraid for his wife who had no choice but to openly defecate due to no sanitation in the entire village. The women in the village would wait until nightfall before they would go out into the fields to defecate because they found it too embarrassing in daylight. Waiting until dark though means the women and their families fear for their safety due to the risk of sexual assault. Amarsingh said "this is my village I used my savings to build a toilet for my familly. Once it was built I went around the village advocating and helping other people build their toilets. It is about dignity and safety for the women".
With knowledge, help and support from WaterAid and the Samarthann, Amarsingh has promoted change in his village so that by March 2013, every household will have their own latrine. Because this man has decided to BE the change, his nieces Nirmla (18) and Renuka (11) were able to tell me today they now feel totally safe. Our translator had explained during our conversation with the girls that rape had been rife around this area. With people like Amarsingh and organisations such as the WaterAid and the Samarthann though, aspirations for safety and sanitation are now realities. As part of the Gram Panchyat, Amarsingh used his influence to persuade the village to install toilets and follow his lead to keep the women in the village safe. For this, I felt he was an incredible man - but, as with all great men, when I told him what an inspiration he was he just smiled and said "9 more to build".
I needed some time to compose myself after listening to Amarsingh and his family's story. With a wife myself as well as a sister and mother and with numerous female friends, I had a lump in my throat. It is one thing to be afraid, but another to be afraid and incapable of making change. The Government had clearly ignored this issue for years and at 65 years old, I can only imagine Amarsingh must have felt isolated and desperate. Cut off from Bhopal, all of the villagers believed they couldn't afford toilets. With guidance and empowerment from WaterAid and the Samarthann the village need rely on no-one but themselves to be the catalyst for change. Strip away the politics of India, and just take it on a simple humane level, there is no greater reason for WaterAid to be present in India other than what I witnessed this morning.
After leaving Amrod, we set off for what I had expected to be the most exciting part of the trip; a visit to the village school in Padli. When we arrived, we were greeted by the children with our heads being marked and each of us handed a flower. We were told about how the school had formed a committee of the schoolchildren to teach them about hygiene and education so that they could be the driving force for change within the village.
Breaking into groups, James, Sophie and I chatted with a group of 30 children including the Health minister (Binki aged 13) - responsible for ensuring all the children had cut nails and we're washing their hands regularly and in the right way; the Education minister (Dipika aged 12) responsible for the library and ensuring the children are reading; and Aarti (aged 11) and responsible for ensuring the plants around school had been watered.
In total a committee of 10 are responsible for the school. These were intelligent and proud children whose school was spotless and tidy. This innovative method of engagement with the community is an effective one. By WaterAid educating them about hygiene they independently went back into the village to promote their awareness. Open defecation used to take place throughout the village and mainly in the school playground due to the open space. To prevent this the children would play games at night in their playground with their teachers to ward off people from doing this. Moreover, they were given whistles to embarrass people into not openly defeating. The result? In 3 months the vilage has achieved 100% sanitation status - something the children should be very proud of - and they were and will continue to be as education is the only answer to lasting change.
I ran out of notes at this point. Mainly because for the next 2.5 hours we played. For James and I, taking photos with an ipad/PlayBook meant we were swamped by children constantly - which was great fun. We posed for photos then showed them back to them and they loved it. We shared our photos of home and answered questions about England too. The last half hour ws spent running round in circles on the play ground playing a game I was not fit enough for! But immensely enjoyed.
When answering questions, possibly the most poignant came from the Education Minister "are men and women equal in England". I proudly answered "yes, everyone is equal in every way". It is possibly the first time I have thought about it, but it resonates here just how lucky we are back home... I'm suppose I'm more proud that this intelligent little girl who has already transformed a village of nearly 1000 had the courage and belief to ask whether there is more to aspire to - hopefully our answers today will continue to help her do that.
I hope this inspires others in the same way it moved me. Please share with friends and family if you wish and as ever, loads of info can be found on WaterAid.org
WaterAid transforms lives.