Local women in India leading and participating in a local hygiene education session, learning about the importance of hand-washing.

During my recent trips to Bangalore and Chennai, it was really eye opening for me to see the important role hygiene education and creative awareness raising programs can play in also generating demand for access to safe water, and ensuring programs are more sustainable. Visiting an area near Bangalore where one of our partners had provided WaterCredit loans and rolled our hygiene education programs, you could see the great level of care and pride with which families were taking care of their homes, water connections and toilets. 

The Economist wrote a great piece on the importance of changing cultural norms through tools such as participatory hygiene education and training programs to more successfully address issues such as open defecation. You can’t just build toilets and hand them out, and expect people to change their way of life. This is definitely something I saw during my trips to Haiti as well. On the contrary, you need to let people and communities to think and act for themselves, helping them understand the linkages between poor hygiene and water- and sanitation-related diseases. The interesting part about WaterCredit is that because households are willing and able to finance the toilet / product that they want (and sometimes engaged in actually building the toilet), there is a greater chance they will use it and ensure it is maintained over time.

In this rural community near Bangalore, we also visited a local school where children are highly engaged in hygiene education and awareness raising programs to spread the word, and become health ambassadors within their homes. What an amazing experience to see these children sing songs and play out skits to show what they had learned, and how they are educating their families around adopting key hygiene practices.

During my trip to India in August, which was in Chennai (in the South of India), I met some truly remarkable communities in which women and children were embedding and advocating for hygiene education and awareness in areas where they live in very creative ways, pushing for their entire villages to become open defecation free. 

Another WaterCredit partner we visited in June in Bangalore is Grameen Koota, a leading MFI that has disbursed more than $16 million in WaterCredit loans to families at the BOP for water and sanitation needs. With representatives from Grameen Koota, we joined a meeting hosted by a group of local women (self-help group) who were responsible for taking out and repaying WaterCredit loans. We had a really enlightening and compelling discussion with these women, trying to understand how having access to a toilet at home (or near their home) had made a significant difference in their lives.

One of the women told a very moving story, one which is hard to convey here in writing. This woman (about 60 years old) explained that three years ago, before this WaterCredit program had been rolled out; women, young girls and children in this community had to find places to defecate throughout the day and night, with very little time and space to find somewhere that was private. Often, men working nearby would watch as these women would need to go to the bathroom in open air, leading them to feel embarrassed and ashamed. The level of discomfort was so high that they began starving themselves, sometimes for as long as three days, to not have to go to the bathroom and bear the humiliation of having others watch them. Today, they are proud to have the convenience and privacy they deserve by having a toilet at home. While I wasn’t able to get a good shot of this woman speaking, below is a picture of another couple (in another community near Bangalore) who was very proud to show us the new toilet they had in their home after receiving a WaterCredit loan. 



Why Should We Act Now?

These stories and experiences have continued to inspire me, and highlight the urgency of this crisis. While WaterCredit is certainly not the only solution to the global water crisis, it’s really encouraging to see positive results on the ground and dream about the impact this type of approach could have if scaled well globally and carefully.

However, we are still very far from truly overcoming this issue.  For instance of the 1.1 billion people who practice open defecation around the world, 600 million live in India. Recent articles have put a spotlight on some painful stories to digest, one highlighting how two young girls in India were brutally raped and murdered on their journey to find a toilet or safe place to defecate in the evening.  

While the water and sanitation crisis is a global challenge, I wanted to focus today’s blog on India. At a national level, there is a critical need to improve and increase awareness of the importance of proper hygiene in India, in addition to making better and more sustainable services available. In terms of the water issue, scarcity and lack of public infrastructure reaching more remote and rural areas remains a key challenge as well. Adding the importance of enhancing financial inclusion at the BOP for water and sanitation needs to this list could allow us to make great progress here.

Tilman Ehrbeck who is the CEO of CGAP just did a great piece on this in the Huffington Post: “The new Government of India has made financial inclusion one of the corner stones in its modernization aspirations for the country. In his first budget speech earlier this month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley set the target of a financial account for each woman and each man in every Indian household by August 2015. This ambitious target is a recognition of how important access to basic financial transaction services — and ultimately to better savings, credit and insurance options — are for full economic citizenship in a country where more than 80 percent of people live and work in the informal economy. “

Prime Minister Modi’s latest speech on Independence Day in India (August 15th) was also very encouraging. His government has placed a strong focus on access to sanitation and hygiene for all, as well as improving financial inclusion at the Base of the Economic Pyramid (BOP). “The prime minister asked MPs and business leaders to help build toilets, especially for women and model villages. He pledged bank accounts for all in a country where nearly 40% of people have little access to financial services and are often at the mercy of moneylenders who charge extortionate interest.” 

Perhaps this is a call to action by the Indian government that will allow us to finally take our efforts to the next level?




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