Imagine having no choice but to relieve yourself out in the open, in front of anyone who’s there? That’s the reality for millions of poor girls in India. HEEALS is a charity that’s working to end that lack of the basic right to sanitation. It’s changing lives. Girls who’d had no chance in life now have a future.
For most of us, going to the toilet is a simple matter. We feel the urge. We get up and go to the nearest toilet and we use it. In much of the world, though, this is far from reality. In India, it’s impossible for more than half a billion—over half the population!—especially poor women and girls. They have no choice but to perform this vital function publicly.
It’s rare that I’m impressed by charities and foundations. My usual reaction is to cringe, because inspection nearly always demonstrates that they’re more about greed than the services they ostensibly perform. The fund raisers rake in far more money than ends up aiding those for whom the funds are supposedly raised. The officers of the organizations take home salaries that make them wealthy. Corrupt partnerships are formed with corporations that use them for their own political and image reasons. Funds are diverted to useless projects, which further enrich others. These projects divert yet more money away from those in need. And those in need are used as picture-postcard images to continue the cycle of fundraising, enrichment, and diversion of wealth.
HEEALS is a welcome change. The organization operates on a shoestrong, yet manages to produce significant results that make real differences in the lives of people.
The implications affect every aspect of life. Girls are open to harrassment. Their health is adversely affected. Their life options are limited. Many cannot attend school because there are no separate facilities for them, and they aren’t allowed to use the boys’ toilets.
A grassroots organization has grown up to address this issue, sanitation in general, and access to clean water. HEEALS was founded primarily out of a recognition that girls’ lives are terribly circumscribed by their lack of access to this most basic of necessities: a place to defecate. Of course, the associated issues of sanitation and clean water go along with HEEALS’ territory.
I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Gagan Deep Kashyap, Project Director for HEEALS. Though not a founder, he was there at the organization’s start. His enthusiasm for the project shines through, and through him and the documentation he provided, the legitimacy of HEEALS is clear. It’s a genuine pleasure to tell you about the important work they’re doing that’s truly changing lives.
The effects of not having adequate toilet facilities on girls are terrible. Gagan was quite frank. He told me that India is a highly patriarchal society, which is a primary reason for the inadequate facilities, which is to the point of complete lack for girls and women. As a direct result, the school dropout rate for girls is about 44%.
In urban slums and rural schools, safe drinking water is often unavailable. Knowledge of how to purify water is largely nonexistent. Therefore, HEEALS has launched a campaign to provide information about safe drinking water and basic hygiene. They have developed posters, flyers, banners, and pictures to get the message across.
With the help of volunteers from the University of London’s Royal School of Speech and Drama, a series of dramas was developed for presentation in schools, community halls, temples, mosques, and churches. The program is interactive, with children taking part in the drama in front of schools. At the time of our interview, Gagan said that they’d done ten drama performances and that they’ve been highly successful.
The primary focus is now on education in hygiene, especially for girls. To illustrate, Gagan told me about a young girl named Madhu who’s about age 10, pictured to the left.
When one of HEEALS’ team members, Chinu, met Madhu, her school attendance was dropping. She explained that it was because she was sick so much, suffering from gastoenteritis, diarrhea, and food poisoning. Chinu found that she was unaware of sanitation, but after involvement in one of their workshops she learned about how to obtain safe clean water to drink, how to keep her environment clean, and how to follow good hygiene practices.
The result was that her frequent illnesses faded away, so her absenteeism did too. As a result, she’s now performing well in school. Madhu’s much happier and has grown confident. That self-assurance has made her better able to focus on her studies. She’s become the sanitation supervisor in her school, acting as a monitor for healthy hygiene practices.
Best of all, though, Madhu is one of many. She’s one girl who may now have a future previously denied by ill health brought on by that simplest and most critical of needs: adequate sanitation and the associated clean water.
The University of London crew has helped them develop programs and a video. They held a painting and drawing competition on the topic of “Paint a City that’s Clean and One that’s Unclean”. They gave prizes and posted the images around their schools. They were able to see how important hygiene and sanitation is to their futures, how it could give them the opportunity to have a future. They’ve helped take the information home so their parents can also learn.
Now, they’re taking these programs into rural areas. The video is a documentary of the drama. You can see it here.
HEEALS did a door-to-door survey in Bhowapur village and Kaushambi slum in northern India. They found some shocking facts about sanitation in poor areas:
All this and more can be read in the full report, Heeals Survey Report On Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. (Requires Google account login.) Keep in mind that, while the survey didn’t try to identify how these issues affect girls and women, HEEALS’ initial interest in resolving the problems was an acute awareness of its effects on the lives of girls.
The HEEALS campaign takes off where the Indian government has dropped the ball: education. As they state in Door to Door Awareness Campaign Approach on Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation:
Our task is to spread the awareness among rural and urban slums areas which are near to NCR Region then go to interior parts of the country. We create awareness among them by telling them how they can purify water by boiling, filter, putting cloth on tap etc. And also encourage them to make toilets in their home. We want to stop open defecation and also encourage them to make “community toilets”. …
… We have applied [a] push approach in the campaign where instead of calling people in to our knowledge space, we have pushed that knowledge space in to [their] homes through our door to door approach. Through this method, we were able to interact with each family individually, so that we can understand each of their problems and issues to the core.
HEEALS’ current focus is on provision of toilet facilities, but other related ones are on their radar. As their survey noted, garbage disposal is a great concern. Not only is rubbish thrown out in highly unsafe ways, it also contains extremely dangerous substances and processing of dangerous wastes is limited, at best. Dumps (also known as tips) contain electronic, clinical, biological, and chemical waste materials. As their report notes:
Rag pickers are very prone to deadly diseases as they deal with poisonous chemical substances due to improper sorting and disposing of garbage.
There is an extreme need to make people aware about the ill effect of using polythene bags.
A large part of their current campaign is focused on hand washing, a simple yet highly effective practice to limit the spread of disease. They are also teaching how to purify water for drinking, since relatively few people in India enjoy the luxury of water processed for them.
The bottom line, though, is that a minimum of 626 million people in India must defecate in the open.
Finally, they hope to spread their campaign beyond their local area in northern India.
HEEALS operates on a shoestring, but their on-the-ground proactive approach is showing real results. As anyone who knows the primary requirements for health can tell you, sanitation is one of the most important. The industrialized world’s life expectancy did not improve until clean water became available to the masses, along with sewer facilities and toilets. In terms of health, the single most important invention in the history of humanity may be the toilet. But for the masses of India, the cost is out of reach.
There are certainly programs and foundations in the west that promote sanitation in places like India, but as described in the inset box above, the reality is that most money sent to such agencies does little to help the postcard-image people used to collect funding. In the case of HEEALS, virtually all money donated goes directly to programs that work. They are there, on the ground. They’ve done the research and they know what is most likely going to help.
They are hoping to implement a new campaign to reach a wider area. Right now, they’re looking for less than $4,000. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to most agencies, but those drops are enough to actually change lives. Look at what’s happened to Madhu, a girl who’d had no options in her life, but now has real hope.
The amount of money they’re asking for would provide around 115 toilets—but HEEALS understands how to make it go so much further. If they can raise $4,000, they’ll be able to reach 100,000 people, and those people can help educate thousands more. That’s money well spent!
HEEALS empowers people! So please, go to their campaign page and toss a bit into the bucket. Your money will do so much more than fund some executive’s enormous salary or put money in the fund raisers’ pockets.
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