Girls' Body Dignity through Toilets

Deepa Pawar
Posted September 30, 2019 from India
Coordinating Girls' street play asking for safe, dignified community toilets
Coordinating Girls' street play asking for safe, dignified community toilets
Organizing community women
Organizing community women: Organizing community women (1/11)

I have lived in Mumbai's slums 30 years of my life. Yes Mumbai, the economic capital of India. One face of Mumbai are the high rises and other face is that of a bunch of slums. Who live in slums? Not the rich, powerful, coming from privileged backgrounds. People living in slums come from vulnerable, powerless, resourceless areas of society. I know, because I am one of them.

People living in slums regularly struggle for their basic amenities such as water, food, shelter, electricity and face various problems of addiction, illiteracy, and so on. When I was in class 9, a friend from school had come over to my house in the slum. He saw my day's schedule chart hanging on the wall and laughed. He laughed because it was different from his schedule chart. His chart had activities such as sports, studies, tuition classes and so on. While my chart showed I had put aside 1.5 hours of my day for "toilet". He thought this was really funny and kept laughing about it. I felt awkward and uncomfortable but could not say anything to him because that was my reality. 

Day by day, I overcame various odds and completed my schooling. Around the age of 17 or 18 I got married as is the custom in my community and we continued to live in the same slum situation. We lived in a house consisting of a room of 8x10 feet - such rooms stacked one on top of another. Such houses do not have toilets in them.

Throughout my student and professional life, I have often been asked why I am late. While others have answers such as "I am late due to the late trains", or "I am late because had to attend a family function", my answer is "I am late because of the long queue at the community toilet". But of course I can never give this answer.

I can never forget one incident. I was 8 months' pregnant, at only 18. I had very little knowledge about pregnancy,  sexual health or reproductive health. I was alone in my one-room house and was suffering from high fever, weakness and diarrhoea. I needed to visit the community toilet but it was far from my house and no one to help me get there. I somehow got myself to the toilet and saw a huge queue of people waiting to use the toilet. The pain in my stomach and back were unbearable, almost like labour pains. A kind woman let me go in before her. I went into the toilet block and cried. I did not know - who was to blame for what I was facing? Was it my fault? And who else?

Situations ten times worse than these due to community toilets has caused me immense mental distress since my girlhood. I never forgot this question - "whose fault is it?" and continued my daily routine. I started working in some NGOs and campaigns, and began to develop lenses of body dignity, sexuality and reproductive health. One of these was the Right to Pee campaign for safe, clean, free public toilets for women and girls. I finally realized that it was not my fault. It was the fault of the administration which is not sensitive and indifferent to girls' and women's body dignity and expressions. The fault is of the government which is not responsive to people's basic needs. 

In 2016, after many years of work, I formed my own organization called Anubhuti to work for social justice. During our work, we had organized a meeting with community women and I asked them, "What is the one problem that you need to solve urgently?" All women replied in voice, "Sister, it is the condition of our community toilets." My personal experiences were once again triggered. There was a further cruel situation, that these women came majorly from Dalit communities - who are considered lower in the Indian caste hierarchy. People from Dalit communities historically clean the toilets of people living in better conditions, and they are themselves struggling for their basic right of dignified toilets. At Anubhuti we decided to raise the campaign for toilet for girls and women, toilet for communities. We organized girls and women of the community, met the local elected leaders, ran a sustained campaign with signature drives, flash mobs and so on. Finally we succeeded in getting the local political leader to repair and reconstruct one community toilet. This girl-led change was a great moment for us. But I thought to myself, this is only one step, this is only the beginning. I cannot stop now, the situation remains the same. 

When I was a young girl, I was humiliated and in pain because I was powerless - one of many in the community. But today I am a recognized grassroot young woman leader and I am striving to create platforms of empowerment and justice for many girl and women leaders like me.

This story was submitted in response to GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable.

Comments 16

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Dawn Arteaga
Sep 30
Sep 30

This is such a moving story Deepa, thank you for sharing. You carried me right along with you and I felt like I was in line beside you, pregnant and in agony waiting for a toilet. And then through your pain and frustration you found a way to rise up on behalf of countless others in dignity and solidarity. Wow. Just wow! You are an inspiration.

Deepa Pawar
Oct 02
Oct 02

thanks friend for your motivational comment

Anita Shrestha
Sep 30
Sep 30

Dear Deepa
It is great struggle story. Really you are facing great challange. Do best from your organization, be strong, speak strong and then you will reach in goal. Without struggle nobody could reach in goal. But people reach in goal whoever are doing regular struggle...........................Thank you again dear.

Deepa Pawar
Oct 02
Oct 02

yes thank u sister for this comment

Tarke Edith
Sep 30
Sep 30

Hello Deepa
You have done a great job.
There is no one who will say l don't need a toilet. That is a basic needs in life.deat sister helping your slums community to have a toilet is what a great woman like you can do.
Thank you very much for sharing this with us .
Love you sis

Hello, sister Deepa,

I have been reading your posts following the work that you do and the impact you make to the next generation and their mental health. This story of yours is really powerful. You are a great storyteller. I have deep admiration for you because you are able to rise above your childhood circumstances and created your own organization to serve others.

What a strong woman you are to endure those challenges! Overcoming them made you stronger today. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm so proud of who you become today. :)

Deepa Pawar
Oct 02
Oct 02

thank u so much Karen

You're welcome, dear.

Maya Iwata
Oct 01
Oct 01

Deepa, Thank you for sharing your powerful story. I love hearing how you organized the power of women and girls to make structural change. So often we are led to believe that somehow things that are unfair are our fault, but there is a structural problem that needs to be addresses. Clean, safe, accessible and widely available toilets and sanitary is a key human right. Thank you for making change and inspiring others to do so .

Deepa Pawar
Oct 02
Oct 02

sure sister .

Lisbeth
Oct 01
Oct 01

Dear Adeepa,
Thanks very much for this inspiring story. It's actually not very easy I can feel your agony. So how many kids you got now? I am thinking how your first kid will say after hearing what you went through in the public toilet? Hope you have a great day.
Regards

Deepa Pawar
Oct 02
Oct 02

she was also using public toilet . thats because Arya my daughter very well know about my struggle .. i have one daughter

Lisbeth
Oct 02
Oct 02

Like mother like daughter haha. Such an amazing turn over. I pray for God blessings upon you all.
Hugs

Kathy Dixon Crowley
Oct 03
Oct 03

Deepa, I feel like I was walking hand-in-hand with you as you shared your story. I am so proud to know you and the work that you are doing to change this for others. You are inspiration!

Dec 03
Dec 03
This comment has been removed by the commenter or a moderator.
narayani khadka
Dec 03
Dec 03

Dear Sister Deepa, this is one of the outstanding stories I have readin World Pulse. Places without toilet facility affects women's health because female urinary bladder has lower capacity than male urinary bladder. You have raised very sensitive yet most ignored issue.
I am so motivated by your works. Keep on writing and inspiring.
Sending you warm hugs and love from Nepal