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Urging Indians to ‘Take the Poo to the Loo’

A village school in Moradabad district, Uttar Pradesh, India with toilet facilities for both boys and girls. Image by author.

A village school in Uttar Pradesh, India with toilet facilities for boys and girls. Children are also encouraged (through visuals and written instructions) to wash hands with soap before meals and after using the toilet. Image by author.

Using innovative outreach programmes, UNICEF India's ‘Take the Poo to the Loo’ campaign has been trying to raise awareness and calling upon Indians to end both open defecation and the use of make-shift (dry) toilets which are cleaned by manual scavengers.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates [pdf], about 620million people in India still practice open defecation – which is over 50 percent of the population. Even the latest government of India (GOI) Census data puts the figure around 50 percent. While the GOI has had a continuous slew of sanitation related schemes, the latest Census data has revealed that more Indian households have telephones/ mobiles than toilet facilities.

It's more than just the absence of toilets

Government officials handling sanitation projects understand that in order to end the age-old practice of open defecation, people must first of all feel the need to have and use a hygienic toilet – an uphill task especially in rural communities where traditionally, there was not much social shame associated with going to fields, woods etc., to answer nature's call and/or defecate. It was simply something that ‘everyone did'. In fact, people shrank away from having a toilet within their home premises on both religious and ‘hygienic’ grounds, their argument being that a toilet, being something ‘unclean', could not co-exist within the same premises that held the kitchen as well as space for worship.

Screenshot from the "Take the poo to the Loo" campaign website

Screenshot from the “Take the poo to the Loo” campaign website

Malathy M, a young professional working with Maharashtra State Rural Livelihoods Mission, reflected on the issue after seeing people using the sides of a highway as an open toilet. She tweeted:

But children bear the severest brunt of this practice

Children are the most vulnerable when it comes to health hazards resulting from poor sanitation and hygiene associated with open defecation. According to a report [pdf] published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,

Diarrhoeal diseases caused by inadequate sanitation and unhygienic conditions put children at multiple risks leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, high morbidity, malnutrition, stunting and death.

In India, that problem can be acute, because,

Realizing the gravity of the situation, , the government of India has sought out UNICEF India as a key partner in it's fight against the practice of open defecation. While UNICEF has been partnering the initiative at various levels, the current #poo2loo campaign aims to engage even the urban populace and raise awareness about open defecation, not only in rural areas but in urban areas (including slums) as well.

UNICEF India is using innovative methods to engage citizens and raise awareness about open defecation.

 In the next two posts of this series, we will look at a) how dry toilets and the associated evil of manual scavenging continues to persist stubbornly in some corners of India and b) how some brave ‘Toilet Warriors’ are ushering in change within their communities and creating demand for hygienic toilets and better sanitation facilities – creating hope that open defecation and manual scavenging will slowly but surely be a thing of the past.

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