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Walk for the basic right of a woman

On December 8, several hundred fellow Calcuttans will walk for the women in their lives. The baby girls, their sisters, their mothers, their colleagues. Themselves. For everywoman. And they will be led by a remarkable man: Milkha Singh.

The purpose is to celebrate volunteerism but, more specifically, focus on the deprivation suffered by school-going girls in much of Bengal: the absence of usable toilets in schools.

And Milkha Singh leads United Way Walk Kolkata Walk 2013 to extend support for a cause that is close to his heart: empowerment of children, youth and women.

Women in particular, for generations of young girls have had to drop out of schools because there is no decent facility to ease themselves. Often they need to go outside the school compound where dangers — human and non-human — lurk behind the bushes. Yet why does something as natural as responding to nature’s call become so fraught with dangers in a land that sends missions to Mars?

United Way Worldwide is a network of around 1,300 local United Ways and over 4,000 community-based organisations in more than 43 countries working to advance the common good focused on education, income and health.

United Way of Kolkata has embarked on Security, Privacy, Dignity for school-going girls to set up toilets, changing room and water stations in schools in Barrackpore with field-based partner Naihati Prolife. This group has been working on water and sanitation issues, supported by Water for People (USA). The project has been designed by them. In a pilot phase, United Way of Kolkata will be helping them to extend their work in other schools beginning with Barrackpore block.

“The objective is not just to provide safety and privacy to school-going girls but to improve sanitation, hygiene and habits of girl students who, in turn, will inspire parents to have toilets at home so that women do not have to go to the fields. More importantly, this will lead to increased girls’ attendance in school, reduce girl dropouts from school due to inadequate or absent toilet facilities, and to adoption of good hygienic practice to pre-empt diseases,” says Gulshan Sachdev, chairman, United Way of Kolkata.

Barrackpore Block I in North 24-Parganas district has a population density of 1,409 per sq km. The district suffers from arsenic contaminated groundwater and is a major source area for trafficking in girls. The block has 19 high schools and almost none of them has running water facilities in toilets. Drinking water stations are insufficient. In co-educational schools particularly, girls suffer for want of toilet facilities, which leads to absenteeism among adolescent girls, and eve-teasing while jostling at drinking water stations. Improved toilets with well-appointed changing rooms are essential.

The proposal is to develop/renovate toilet blocks, provide running water, a changing room and drinking water stations in about 15 schools with the co-operation of the school committees.

Halisahar Jetia Girls and Panpur Makhanlal High School have been been identified on the basis of the existing conditions and needs of the students. They have agreed to pay for the civil construction: wash basin and drinking water.

Key action points:

  • Construct and renovate sanitary blocks in the high school
  • Conduct hygiene education classes through Bratachary that is an effective play method of raising awareness among students
  • Organise meetings with the school management committee, teachers and mothers regarding maintenance of the developed infrastructure
  • Develop and distribute innovative hygiene education materials to target audience
  • Organise block-level advocacy meeting with officials
  • Conduct panchayat-level advocacy for community participation and cost-sharing programme
  • Mobilise school and community for the involvement of locally available resource as much as practicable to ensure quality and sustainability of the facilities
  • Conduct extensive advocacy sessions for maximum utilisation of existing resources and generating local responsibility towards the issue
  • Regular monitoring of hardware and software-related activities and periodic evaluation
  • Process documentation of best practices to share achievements as a learning tool

This is not an initiative that should be limited to one agency only; it should become a citizen’s programme that, professionally handled, can become a social movement and change the face of women’s education in the state.

The mass awareness programme is only the beginning of the movement that should catch the imagination of every right-thinking person in the state and bring about dramatic changes in the way the Indian woman is allowed to respond to nature’s call.

This intervention is in line with United Way of Kolkata’s vision of inclusive social infrastructure with equal opportunity and quality of life for all; and a synergised corporate and development sector investing in society for the common good.

To support the cause do participate in the United Way Walk Kolkata Walk 2013, in association with The Telegraph and presented by United Technologies, on Sunday.

Aniruddha Lahiri is founding board member, United Way of Kolkata