Deepa Pawar organizes women and girls in her slum community so they won’t have to experience the same indignities she faced.
“Ever since I was a young girl, community toilets have caused me immense mental distress.”
I live in Mumbai, a city of high-rises. Yes, it is the economic capital of India, but this is just one face of Mumbai. The other face is the slums, where I lived for the first 30 years of my life.
When I was in class nine, a friend from school came over to my house in the slum. He saw the schedule chart for my day hanging on the wall and laughed. He thought it was really funny that I had put aside one and a half hours of my day for "toilet" on my chart. His chart had activities such as sports, studies, tuition, and classes. I felt awkward and uncomfortable as he kept laughing about it, but I could not say anything to him. That was my reality.
It can be a daily challenge for people in slums to access necessities, like toilets, that people outside the slums take for granted. People living in slums regularly struggle for basic amenities such as water, food, shelter, and electricity. They are more vulnerable to problems like illiteracy and addiction.
Even after I overcame various odds and completed my schooling, I continued to face the challenges of living in a slum. I got married at age 17, as is the custom in my community. My husband and I lived in a home consisting of one 8-foot by 10-foot room. There was no toilet.
Throughout my student and professional life, I have often been asked why I am late. While others answer with, "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 eight months pregnant at only 18. I had very little knowledge about pregnancy, sexual health, or reproductive health. I was alone in my one-room home and suffering from high fever, weakness, and diarrhea.
I needed to visit the community toilet but it was far from my house and I had no one to help me get there. I somehow got myself to the toilet and saw a huge queue of people waiting to use it. The pain in my stomach and back were unbearable, almost like labor 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?
Ever since I was a young girl, community toilets have caused me immense mental distress. I continued returning to the question, whose fault is it?
I started working with NGOs on rights campaigns, and I began to develop lenses of body dignity, sexuality, and reproductive health. As I worked on the Right to Pee campaign for free public toilets for women and girls, I finally realized that my suffering was not my fault.
It is the fault of an administration that is indifferent to girls’ and women’s body dignity. It is the fault of the government, which is not responsive to people’s basic needs.
In 2016, I formed my own organization called Anubhuti to work for social justice. We organized a meeting with community women and I asked them, "What is the one problem that you need to solve urgently?" All the women replied in one voice, "Sister, it is the condition of our community toilets." My personal experiences were once again triggered.
An added cruelty is that most of the women at this meeting came from Dalit communities, which are considered lower in the Indian caste hierarchy. People from Dalit communities historically clean the toilets of people living in better conditions while they themselves struggle for their basic right of dignified toilets.
At Anubhuti we decided to raise a campaign for toilets for girls and women. We organized the girls and women of the community, met the local elected leaders, and ran a sustained campaign through signature drives, flash mobs, and other tactics. Finally we succeeded in getting the local political leader to repair and reconstruct one community toilet.
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 grassroots young woman leader, and I am striving to create platforms of empowerment and justice for girls and women leaders like me.
I am proud of the moment when we won our first victory, our new community toilet. It showed us the power of girl-led change. But I remember thinking to myself, this is only one step. This is only the beginning and I cannot stop now.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program in celebration of Day of the Girl. We believe every woman has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could receive added visibility, or even be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.