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In India, New Seat of Power for Women
Prospective Brides Demand Sought-After Commodity: A Toilet

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.

With economic freedom, women are increasingly expecting more, and toilets are at the top of their list, they say.

The lack of sanitation is not only an inconvenience but also contributes to the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid and malaria.

"Women suffer the most since there are prying eyes everywhere," said Ashok Gera, a doctor who works in a one-room clinic here. "It's humiliating, harrowing and extremely unhealthy. I see so many young women who have prolonged urinary tract infections and kidney and liver problems because they don't have a safe place to go."

Previous attempts to bring toilets to poor Indian villages have mostly failed. A 2001 project sponsored by the World Bank never took off because many people used the latrines as storage facilities or took them apart to build lean-tos, said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, who worked on the program.

But by linking toilets to courtship, "No Toilet, No Bride" has been the most successful effort so far. Walls in many villages are painted with slogans in Hindi, such as "I won't get my daughter married into a household which does not have a toilet." Even popular soap operas have featured dramatic plots involving the campaign.

"The 'No Toilet, No Bride' program is a bloodless coup," said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, a social organization, and winner of this year's Stockholm Water Prize for developing inexpensive, eco-friendly toilets. "When I started, it was a cultural taboo to even talk about toilets. Now it's changing. My mother used to wake up at 4 a.m. to find someplace to go quietly. My wife wakes up at 7 a.m., and can go safely in her home."

Pathak runs a school and job-training center for women who once cleaned up human waste by hand. They are known as untouchables, the lowest caste in India's social order. As more toilets come to India, the women are less likely to have to do such jobs, Pathak said.

"I want so much for them to have skills and dignity," Pathak said. "I tell the government all the time: If India wants to be a superpower, first we need toilets. Maybe it will be our women who finally change that."

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