Tessa Harris reports on Indian women’s idea of true romance 

Once a toilet is introduced into a school, there is a 15% increase in girls’ attendance rate.

Once a toilet is introduced into a school, there is a 15% increase in girls’ attendance rate.

Forget flowers and chocolates as ways to woo women. In modern India, men would be well advised not to declare their love with bouquets, but with a gift that’s much more practical, even if decidedly less romantic. 

Studies estimate that 60% of India’s population don’t have access to a toilet. For women, in particular, it’s a shocking statistic that affects not only their dignity, but also their safety and independence. Even more disturbing, it has led to many cases of sexual assault.

Women and girls routinely risk their own safety because they do not have access to safe sanitation. In rural areas, women are often attacked while looking for places to defecate. Their vulnerability is heightened as they venture out alone when it is dark, in order to preserve their privacy and dignity. Unsafe toilet practice is also one of the biggest reasons why girls leave education. Once a toilet is introduced into a school, however, there is a 15% increase in girls’ attendance rate.

Sanitation First, a small, independent charity based in Bath in the United Kingdom, has been working with communities in India for the last thirteen years. In that time, it has installed over 3,000 ecological toilets, which not only provide schools, families, and communities with sanitation, but also produce natural, high-yielding compost.

The charity’s communications officer, Madeleine Knowles, tells the story of a young girl living in Gujarat, who used to go to the school where the charity installed their first toilets. She recalls: “She told us what a huge difference they made to her life, as she didn't have to leave the school grounds and find a field to go to the toilet in. A few years later, her parents found her a husband, but when she visited his house she was horrified to find there was no toilet. She had no choice but to marry him and move in with him, but after two days she had had enough. She went back to her parents’ house and refused to return until a toilet had been built. Despite her husband and his mother coming to ask her to reconsider, she refused to back down.” 

Madeleine continues: “After a few weeks, she had a visit from her husband, who had built her a toilet! They were reunited and even her mother-in-law was very excited about the new addition to the family home.” 

In what Madeleine argues was a feminist act, the young bride got her way. It might not be the most archetypal romance story, but, says Madeleine: “this demonstrates that, in some parts of the world, the deal breaker for a potential partner is not his bank balance, his politics, or his hair, but his toilet.”

The need for proper sanitation is a theme that’s also being taken up by Bollywood. Last summer’s blockbuster wasn’t a film about love, heartache and family values, but, you guessed it – toilets.  With the catchy title, Toilet: A love story, the film’s plot revolves around an educated new bride who refuses to join the other village women in their daily dawn forays into the fields. Defying his father and the village elders, the husband is inspired to act. He delivers the immortal line: “If you want your wife to be with you, there has to be a toilet in the house.”

So, if you do receive a box of chocolates or any other conventional love token this Valentine’s day, please spare a thought for the millions of Indian women who’d like nothing more from their sweethearts than the ability to pee in private. As Madeleine says: “The typical romantic narrative that we have been fed in the Western world is relatively closed-minded and idealistic, and doesn’t reflect the true situations that people all over the world find themselves in.” 

For more information visit www.sanitationfirst.org