heroes of change
(Photo credits: WaterAid India)

Drums, Flowers & Yellow Sarees – The Sehore Women’s Guide to Change!

By Santoshi Tiwari & Team WAI

The feisty women of Jahangirpura village in Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh decided it was time to gang up and wear yellow sarees to collectively drive home the point that open defecation near the village pond had to stop. The leering by the men had to stop. Now famously known as the ‘Yellow Saree Gang’, these spirited women ensured that their village not only becomes open defecation free, but also that women and girls get safety and dignity they deserve.

Seema Lodhi from the ‘Yellow Saree Gang’ in an interview shares the journey of this dynamic women’s group – how it began, the many challenges they faced and the huge change brought about by having toilets in their lives.

Parents and students participate actively to improve the WASH condition in the school

The women conducting a cleanliness drive in their community (Photo credits: WaterAid India)

Q: Tell us something about your village. What are the water and sanitation conditions in your village?

A: My village, Jahangirpura, is located very close to the Indore-Bhopal highway. The village has a huge pond and its 270 houses are split in two areas. Most of the villagers are into farming and cultivation as their main source of childhood.

Until two years ago, only about 70 houses had toilets while the rest of the villagers used to defecate in the open. As most of the village land was used for cultivation, the only space available to defecate was near the pond. The consistent availability of water made it a popular area for people to defecate. Unfortunately, the villagers ignored the fact that the same water from the pond was used for cultivation as well as for other household purposes. The villagers also grazed their cattle in the same area. This led to a lot of diseases and infections being reported among the villagers.

In addition to this, young girls and women often found it difficult to look for an isolated spot. Even the men who had a toilet in their house refused to change their behaviour and would end up defecating in the open as they enjoyed their morning and evening strolls.

The women conducting a cleanliness drive in their community

The women conducting a cleanliness drive in their community (Photo credits: WaterAid India)

Q: Can you recall a particular incident that triggered the women to feel the need for toilets in the village?

A: The challenges that women face are really sad. They wake up during wee hours only to look for an isolated spot to defecate. And if they need to attend to the call of nature during the day, they have no option but to avoid it or risk their safety in order to relieve themselves.

Of late, a lot of women and girls had started complaining that men loitered near the pond area only to trouble them. As the pond is located at an elevation, everyone can see everything. Nobody bothered about the privacy of the women. Especially for young girls, who experienced fear and utmost discomfort.

We realised as a group that we had to change this situation. Imagine not feeling safe near your own house.

Q: So how did the change in mindset occur? Were women open about addressing an issue like open defecation?

A: It was not an easy journey. Only a handful of us started to voice our concerns. Luckily for us, in 2016, WaterAid India and its partner organisation noticed our struggle and organised a meeting with the village women. Surprisingly, about 50-60 women came forward and participated in the meeting, hoping for a concrete solution.

It was an open discussion where women talked not just about the safety aspect associated with open defecation, but also the health implications. We were explained how faeces can infect our water and soil, and in turn have a negative impact on our health.

Unanimously, we decided to work towards making the village open defecation free and ensure safety for women and girls. We decided to begin the very next day.

Q: What did the village women do in order to address the issue?

A: The first step was to make the men and other villagers realise why it was important to end open defecation. So we began with 5-7 women who decided to wake up early in the morning and spread out near the pond. We later expanded to a larger group of 20 women. When the men came and saw the women in groups, they had no other option but to return. This made the men realise what we go through every day.

Once we had made our point clear, we thought of making a deeper impact in this regard, but in a more light hearted way. All of us decided to wear ‘yellow coloured sarees’, in order to be recognised from a distance. We played drums and some musical instruments. We also sang songs, walked through the village and even voiced slogans. We walked everyday around the village only to create awareness. But we also realised that we needed to provide the villagers with appropriate solutions. And so the construction of toilets became the need of the hour.

Q: How did you motivate the villagers to agree to construct toilets as well as use them, instead of going out in the open to defecate?

A: Initially it was difficult to talk to the villagers about the issue. But we did not give up. We split into small groups and conducted door-to-door visits to each individual’s house and discussed with them the adverse effects of open defecation.

If the family agreed, we would provide them with a layout of the toilet that should be constructed in their house. And if they did not agree, we would present them flowers and visit them often to make them change their decision. There were still some families who were resistant, so we would dance and sing and even play drums outside their house to embarrass them.

Such practices did bring about a change, and almost every house agreed to construct a toilet and use it regularly.

Q: There must have been a number of challenges that the Yellow Sari Gang women faced. How did you overcome them?

A. Definitely, acceptance was an issue. The villagers, both men and women started ignoring and taunting us. But since we were all working together for a cause, we were not afraid of anything. Also, gradually our ‘Yellow Saree Gang’ increased in number. There were more and more women joining us each day, and it made us stronger. This made the villagers notice us even more. We would always interact with the families in groups, and make our points clear as one voice. I think that is what made us so strong and successful in making the village open defecation free.

Q: What is the present situation of the village? Are people really using the toilets that they have constructed?

A: The present situation is so much better. The village is now open defecation free and the people are cooperating to sustain it. Although it took about a year to make this possible, our strategies and efforts really worked very well. It feels good to live in a cleaner environment. Women and girls feel safer. The water in the pond is not as dirty as it used to be earlier.

The people who criticized us earlier now applaud us for our efforts. It feels good to be a part of such an amazing initiative.