Global Policy Studies & International Security Health & Social Policy

What is a Toilet?

One of the greatest things about working in a tight knit community lies in the stories and friendships that you develop with the community members. Perhaps for me, an even greater part is having a colleague who speaks Hindi and can translate these stories while I am in rural India. We talked with the laborers when construction was ongoing, we talk with the community members who come and relax at the site in the afternoon, and we talk with our staff members as they count the users and maintain the facility. Naturally our conversations lead to sanitation, public health, and toilet usage. There were two conversations in particular that made me think about the deeper problems with sanitation access in the community.

One of the toilets in the HP facility
One of the toilets in the HP facility

The first problem was communicated by one of the construction workers at the site. We asked him if he had a toilet at home. He said yes, but also made it clear that he does not use it. This was a bit shocking as many people we talk to express a strong desire to have a toilet in their home. We pushed further into why he did not use the toilet at his home and he explained that it is poorly constructed. It consists of cement bags, a poorly constructed hole, and no walls. It gets filthy and it does not really make sense to use, he explained. In an even stranger twist, while constructing our sanitation facility he uses the fields to go to the toilet. So someone who has a toilet in their home, although a poorly functioning one, and is working on a community toilet block still uses the field to relieve themselves because no better option is available. Our final question was what he thought of the facility, and he said that he would use it every day if there was one in his community.

The desire for toilet access is clearly present. What is missing in this case is a proper receptacle and the proper timing. No one wants to use a toilet that is dirty and does not protect them, and no one can control when they have to use a toilet. Even if a clean facility is available, if someone is away at work that has no toilet, they are still going to contribute to the world’s largest percentage of outdoor defecation.

The second conversation was with a pair of carpenters building doors for the site. They live in a neighboring village about twenty minutes away. During one of their breaks we were talking idly when the older of the carpenters asked about the decision process for building the toilet and why we picked Nimua village. The answer is a mixture of the price of land and community connections developed several years ago. At the mention of land, the conversation quickly moved into the possibility of building toilets for their family on land that they owned. There was no pressure to begin construction immediately, but there was an intense desire to take advantage of a conversation with the “toilet builders.” They had the private land to build toilets, so they wanted personal toilets. To these men, a toilet was something personal and something to help protect the women in their families.

These conversations got me thinking. What is a toilet? The answer may seem very simple. But a toilet can represent different things to different people. A porcelain seat hooked up to a functional sewage system that quickly and effectively whisks away excreta to a treatment facility. Maybe a toilet is instead a squat hole that feeds into a pit latrine. Beyond the function though, they can be a safety mechanism for women in a community. They can be a way to preserve dignity and a way to improve health in a community. Ultimately we view toilets as a stepping stone to providing more services in the community. Ranging from health education to women’s rights and security to land rights to the poor, we see toilets as the beginning to a number of different services.

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