2.0 solution to a stubborn problem

Four women work together building a brick wall.
Online tool for safe sanitation

uOttawa alumna Vidya Nair helped kick-start a computerized training program for rural women that is advancing India’s campaign to address its sanitation crisis.

Meet India’s first female toilet builders.

Vidya Nair worked with 20 of them on a trail-blazing project that puts the people who have the most to gain from improved sanitation at the centre of the solution.

About 2.4 billion people worldwide lack access to adequate sanitation, and almost one billion defecate in the open. About 60% of those – 600 million people – live in India.

Open defecation spreads cholera, typhoid and other diseases. The practice also has devastating social side-effects, particularly for girls and women. Walking in the dark to relieve themselves in remote locations puts women at risk of assault. And lack of safe, clean, private toilets at school is a common barrier to education for girls.

Nair worked for 10 months on a pilot project that launched in September 2014 in Bhoi Sahi, a village of 60 families in Odisha state. The project has spread to 21 states, and has trained almost 200 rural women in toilet construction.

She worked alongside experts from Amrita University’s AMMACHI Labs, who use state-of-the-art technology to address complex development challenges. For their Women’s Empowerment: Sanitation project, she helped create a digital vocational training course, delivered on tablets, that teaches rural women how to build and maintain toilets.

Nair drew on skills honed in her uOttawa Communication classes to help develop the training modules, as well as an engaging video about the project.

“I know nothing about plumbing or wiring, so I was a test student for the modules, which were produced in English before being translated into Indian languages,” she says. “I worked with the developers to ensure the material was easy for low-literacy populations to understand, with simple graphics, limited text and clear audio.”

In that first three-month course, 20 women ranging in age from 20 to 65 learned the basics of masonry, plumbing and wiring, under the supervision of a visiting tradesperson. After working together to build toilets for their own families, the women formed a cooperative to earn income building toilets in neighbouring villages.

But building toilets alone is not enough to change behaviour and end the entrenched practice of open defecation, as India hopes to do by 2019. The women also attended awareness-raising classes about sanitation and hygiene, empowering them to become ambassadors of change. “Those sessions were essential to ensure that the practical training was well received and sustainable,” Nair says.

To undertake this decidedly unconventional work placement, Nair was supported by a uOttawa CO-OP Mobility Scholarship.

“It was an incredible learning opportunity, and really fun,” she says. “And I don’t stop thinking about those women, who took me in as part of their community.”

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