Toilets as a dowry item? Far from the silly joke I made above, women in impoverished areas of India are using their new found leverage to solve a health problem that eluded the best minds of the World Bank.
About 665 million people in India — about half the population — lack access to latrines. But since a "No Toilet, No Bride" campaign started about two years ago, 1.4 million toilets have been built here in the northern state of Haryana, some with government funds, according to the state's health department.
Women's rights activists call the program a revolution as it spreads across India's vast and largely impoverished rural areas. [...]
"No loo? No 'I do,' " Vimlas said, laughing as she repeated a radio jingle.
And interestingly, this is one time when the stars have aligned to favor families who decided to buck societal pressures and raise female children.
A societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons — an illegal but widespread practice — means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match.
Ha! Talk about taking advantage of a horrible situation. The women then use their influence to actually stop some of the more virulent diseases that flourish in areas lacking sanitation systems as well as gender-specific problems:
The lack of sanitation is not only an inconvenience but also contributes to the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid and malaria.
"Women suffer the most since there are prying eyes everywhere," said Ashok Gera, a doctor who works in a one-room clinic here. "It's humiliating, harrowing and extremely unhealthy. I see so many young women who have prolonged urinary tract infections and kidney and liver problems because they don't have a safe place to go."
Previous attempts to bring toilets to poor Indian villages have mostly failed. A 2001 project sponsored by the World Bank never took off because many people used the latrines as storage facilities or took them apart to build lean-tos, said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, who worked on the program.
But by linking toilets to courtship, "No Toilet, No Bride" has been the most successful effort so far.
Ultimately, the region now is beginning to experience an interesting shift - with more girls going to school, and feeling empowered enough to assert their wishes to their future families, this may signal the beginning of a greater push for gender equality.
In India, New Seat of Power for Women [Washington Post]