There is a certain subculture surrounding the girls’ washroom. It can be a refuge, a gathering place, the site of discovery for first periods. Alliances form when secrets echo off ceramic tiles and boys aren’t allowed within earshot—that is, if you live in a place where bathrooms sit behind closed doors and running water is standard-issue.
For girls in rural India, already born at a social disadvantage, a trip to relieve themselves can be so humiliating that it disrupts studies and threatens futures. Whether learning to read in primary school or tackling algebra in high school, education can be compromised by toilet troubles. Cycles of illiteracy, early marriage and teen pregnancies are more likely to repeat.
“I had to leave the classroom and go behind the building,” says one Grade 5 girl from Kalthana, a far-flung village in India’s northern province of Rajasthan.
At Kalthana Primary School, the toilet block was a set of open-air urinal stalls without a roof or doors—just partitions, cubicle-like, between holes in the concrete floor. Only the boys dared use it.
The girls did not want to pee beside the boys. Instead, they walked far enough from the property for the sake of privacy that they missed significant portions of class.
It was difficult to be stealthy about it. Hemlata is a 12-year-old student here. She explains in Hindi, through a translator, that they needed to haul along buckets of water to wash up. In parts of the world without advanced sewage treatment, toilet paper is uncommon. Proper bathroom stalls here come equipped with a flush toilet and a faucet, in place of paper, to clean up. These girls had to improvise.
Hemlata sits in her school’s sunny front yard under the shade of a tree, next to her best friend Mamta, 10, who is one class behind her in Grade 4. They say their girlfriends sometimes skipped class to avoid the embarrassing ritual—the abandoned desk, the heavy bucket, the long walk. From their hunched shoulders and fidgety fingers it’s clear both girls are uncomfortable discussing their predicament, however widespread. At 732 million, India has the highest number of people without access to toilets in the world.
Open defecation is customary, squatting in fields or in urban gutters. Girls can risk harassment or assault when they leave home or school to walk alone in search of privacy. So, despite state and national government commitments to girls’ education, they stay home. To keep their dignity during that time of the month, or for their own safety.
In 2009, India’s Parliament made school compulsory for children ages 6 to 14, with some public schools providing free lunch, uniforms, and even sanitary napkins as incentives. As a result, India’s primary school enrollment rate is impressive, on paper, at 92 per cent, according to the latest available data from UNESCO.
But formal data doesn’t count variables like toilet conditions and changing bodies. Official enrollment is one thing; attendance is another.
At Kalthana, all that stood between Hemlata, Mamta and the integrity of their education was a plumber, a valve, an underground pipe and gravity—and the funds to bring all four factors together.
In 2014, WE Charity rejigged the school’s hand pump, the lever that draws up potable water from a borehole. WE hired a plumber to install a small valve that diverts flow from the pump’s spout, like a switch on a railroad. Instead of pumping up and out, the water can also flow down and under, to a pipe that runs underground and across the school yard. The pipe emerges to scale a wall and feed into a storage tank atop the roof, where gravity’s downward pull takes the place of electricity to supply—presto—running water. An alternative to electricity is key, since the school’s power source is inconsistent.
This small feat of engineering produced the first running water in the history of the village—providing students access to clean water.
This water was connected to another village first—WE installed flush toilets in the newly-built washroom block, with separate facilities for boys and girls, each behind closed doors, and a handwashing station with a row of shiny faucets. Building classrooms (while essential) is not enough to get girls to school.
Hemlata and Mamta no longer worry about bathroom breaks, even bragging to their friends about the facilities. None of the other primary schools in the region have flush toilets, running water or handwashing stations, nor do any of Kalthana’s private homes.
Six students recently defected from a prestigious private school for the chance to feel cool running water wash over their hands.
The old toilet block now stands like an ancient monument, covered in moss, sun-bleached, its floor scattered with dry leaves.
When the lunch bell rings, the pandemonium of recess takes hold—younger children race each other to be first in line to operate the hand pump that will clean their dishes, plates that will be filled with rice and lentils. A slight boy reaches up and pulls down the lever with his entire being. For a moment, his tiny feet leave the ground with the counterweight of the water pressure.
Now, the odds are the same for Hemlata, Mamta and this boy. But in a few years the girls move on to high school and puberty will make the call of nature more compromising.
Geeta and Seeta are 17-year-old identical twins and Grade 10 students at Verdara Senior Secondary School. A sprawling campus set on a hill in the neighbouring village, Verdara is the destination for Kalthana Primary graduates, should they make it this far. Geeta says the school’s toilet troubles stopped at least a dozen local girls from registering.
While the national rate for completion of Grade 5 is 95 per cent, India’s enrollment for secondary school is just 62 per cent. Dropouts shoot up after puberty and the start of menstruation; girls can miss a full week of lessons when they get their periods to avoid a hike to the bushes out back. Teenage girls can also be pulled from class to work in fields, or to marry and cook for husbands. For many families, an educated girl is a point of pride, but first they need to contend with the fear of their daughters in unsavory environments.
“Ashamed” is the word Geeta uses to describe using a run-down toilet, meant for both girls and boys but avoided by the former. Geeta always speaks first.
“We had to go outside,” adds Seeta, “For that reason, many girls didn’t come. Their parents wouldn’t let them.” Sometimes it’s not the pubescent teenager, but her parents, who worry about their daughter’s dignity.
That was before.
Now, Verdara’s crowning glory is a long, narrow steel sink with faucets protruding at intervals—the communal handwashing station that runs the length of both the girls’ and boys’ toilet blocks. Like at Kalthana, WE Charity built separate blocks, each with flush toilets.
Unlike Kalthana, the job required a bit more equipment than a valve and a tank. After tearing down the dilapidated structure, WE constructed the toilet blocks, along with three new classrooms, and installed full plumbing. Solar panels, 30 of them, are currently being mounted on the roof and will soon have the school running on green energy.
With the arrival of flush toilets and privacy, Geeta and Seeta took it upon themselves to deliver public service announcements. They visited two of their girlfriends’ homes and approached the parents.
“We said, ‘there is nothing to worry now. You can send your daughter to school,’” Geeta says.
And they did.
In two years, Geeta and Seeta will graduate from Verdara, right around the time Hemlata and Mamta will start their first years of high school. All of the girls have plans to go to college and become teachers or doctors—or an engineer, says Seeta, if she does well in math.
Maybe there are blueprints for a girls’ washroom in her future.
Katie Hewitt is a journalist and Associate Director at WE. She loves to travel, but while she’s home in Toronto, a good story is the best trip.