In India, More Women Demand Toilets Before Marriage

Indra Bhatia, who is raising seven children in Panchgujran, India, said her toilet has changed her life.
Indra Bhatia, who is raising seven children in Panchgujran, India, said her toilet has changed her life. "When I marry my daughters off, I will make sure that their home is fully equipped with a toilet and the works," she said. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 12, 2009

NILOKHERI, India -- An ideal groom in this dusty farming village is a vegetarian, does not drink, has good prospects for a stable job and promises his bride-to-be an amenity in high demand: a toilet.

In rural India, many young women are refusing to marry unless the suitor furnishes their future home with a bathroom, freeing them from the inconvenience and embarrassment of using community toilets or squatting in fields.

About 665 million people in India -- about half the population -- lack access to latrines. But since a "No Toilet, No Bride" campaign started about two years ago, 1.4 million toilets have been built here in the northern state of Haryana, some with government funds, according to the state's health department.

Women's rights activists call the program a revolution as it spreads across India's vast and largely impoverished rural areas.

"I won't let my daughter near a boy who doesn't have a latrine," said Usha Pagdi, who made sure that daughter Vimlas Sasva, 18, finished high school and took courses in electronics at a technical school.

"No loo? No 'I do,' " Vimlas said, laughing as she repeated a radio jingle.

"My father never even allowed me an education," Pagdi said, stroking her daughter's hair in their half-built shelter near a lagoon strewn with trash. "Every time I washed the floors, I thought about how I knew nothing. Now, young women have power. The men can't refuse us."

Indian girls are traditionally seen as a financial liability because of the wedding dowries -- often a life's savings -- their fathers often shell out to the groom's family. But that is slowly changing as women marry later and grow more financially self-reliant. More rural girls are enrolled in school than ever before.

A societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons -- an illegal but widespread practice -- means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match.

"I will have to work hard to afford a toilet. We won't get any bride if we don't have one now," said Harpal Sirshwa, 22, who is hoping to marry soon. Neem tree branches hung in the doorway of his parents' home, a sign of pride for a family with sons. "I won't be offended when the woman I like asks for a toilet."

Satellite television and the Internet are spreading images of rising prosperity and urban middle-class accouterments to rural areas, such as spacious apartments -- with bathrooms -- and women in silk saris rushing off to the office.

India's rapid urbanization has also contributed to rising aspirations in small towns and villages. On a crowded highway that runs into this village, about 170 miles north of New Delhi, young women, once seen clinging to the backs of motorbikes driven by their fathers or husbands, now drive their own scooters. One recent popular TV ad shows a rural girl sheepishly entering a scooter showroom, then beaming as she whizzes through the parking lot on her new moped.


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