Meena Paliwal is the Sarpanch of Bakheda Kurmi village in Ichhawar block. She exudes a calm confidence. As one of the very few women Sarpanch in Sehore, Madhya Pradesh, she enthusiastically leads initiatives for its betterment and is deeply involved in the development of the village. A mother of two children, living with her husband and in-laws, Paliwal recalls the journey of finding her voice, knowing her mind and mobilizing men, women and children to make Bakheda Kurmi village not just open defecation free but much more than that.
When I first addressed a gathering of over a hundred villagers, I was very scared. I wanted to be sure of what I was going to say and not just come across as a woman leader who is only the face of the panchayat while the men in the panchayat make all the important decisions.
In Bakheda Kurmi village which is home to over 1500 residents, it is not very easy for a woman to raise her voice. During the initial days of my tenure as a Sarpanch, I was told to take a backseat and for the benefit of the village, let my husband deal with all the major issues.
But I’m glad that my husband and my family did not interfere and supported my decision to take lead in working for my village. My first step was to stand up for myself and share my vision with the villagers. Acceptance from the villagers was definitely a concern, but I never stopped trying. From conducting meetings and addressing issues, even under a veil, to meeting relevant local leaders and working at par with them. Slowly but steadily, I have been able to address various issues related to water, sanitation, and hygiene.
When I was first appointed as the Sarpanch, over 60 percent of the village was defecating in the open. It was ironic to see that some villagers even had cars and bikes at home, but did not care to construct a toilet
Gradually, I began to interact with the villagers trying to understand why were they restraining from something that would better their lives and allow them to live in a clean and healthy environment?
In this process, 2-3 people responded positively and paid heed to my concerns and suggestions, at that time, it felt like a huge achievement. It was good to see, that with our consistent efforts and regular discussions, the villagers had started to think about the ill-effects of open defecation. Soon enough, thoughts turned into actions, and through steady efforts the village became open defecation free (ODF)!
What worked well for making the village ODF were some simple measures. While the government was already working towards the construction of toilets, WaterAid India and its partner supported us in ensuring usage of the toilets. With the common aim of achieving the ODF status, the first step was to involve the villagers in whatever we did.
Consequently, we formed women’s groups in the village, who disseminated information on the usage of toilets. The women supported the cause by sharing their personal experiences of defecating in the open. When these women themselves spoke about the humiliation, the embarrassment and the everyday threat they felt and faced while defecating in the open, the message was conveyed in a much stronger way as it resonated well with other women and their family members.
We also began to levy a fine on the villagers who continued to defecate in the open. At the same time, peer leaders- men and women from the village who wanted to support the cause were soon appointed, so as to keep an eye on the defaulters. Last year, after continued efforts, our village attained the status of being open defecation free. Now we are working towards installing taps in every house so that there is regular piped water supply. I am also interacting with government bodies and decision makers, in order to allocate budget for installation of water tanks in the village.
I am happy to contribute to my village in some way, and also share my experiences with others. My greatest desire is to equip my village with basic necessities such as regular water supply, clean and functional toilets and a good overall environment to live in. It is motivating to see that a lot of other villages in the district, as well as other states are aiming to implement similar practices and initiate change.
I am fortunate that all my efforts have been acknowledged. It has been very rewarding to be honoured by the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh for my efforts. A few days ago, I also received an invitation by the Uttarakhand government to address six districts and talk about the work done in my village. Now, such invitations and speeches do not scare me anymore!