In India, there are many places that are still devoid of proper sanitation especially some villages. Under the government’s ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’, many places received proper toilets. People didn’t have to defecate in the open which was more dangerous for the women. Similarly, a small village called Gutuatoli near Ranchi in Jharkhand is witness to a life-altering situation. There are about 400 residents in this village among them is Phoolmani Devi, who is 30-years old and responsible for giving a better life to the women in this village. Under the Swachh Bharat, Mission Foolmani leads a team of four women masons who built about 125 toilets in the village. Since 2017 the Jharkhand’s Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation took an initiative of empowering women by training them to become masons. Around 55,000 women were trained under this initiative who went to build 15 lakh toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission, and as a result, last Jharkhand declared itself Open Defecation Free state. The women of this village have been the driving force behind this sea change. Women like Rani, who overcame constant physical abuse by her husband and persuaded the neighbors to avail the schemes, even carrying her two-year-old son on her back and conducting surveys to construct the toilets. Aradhana Patnaik, secretary of the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation says that Phoolmani’s struggle ultimately paid, although the initial progress was slow and frustrating. She further says,
“After talking to a lot of stakeholders, we realized that women can be trained as masons. Soon, the word ‘Rani Mistri’ was coined. We trained and empowered them. It also helped achieve our ODF goal. Now, we are working towards ODF-plus, like improving sanitation.”
Phoolmani had to struggle a lot to receive all these praises today. She was married off at the age of 16. She was not allowed to step out of the house as her husband didn’t like that. Phoolmani was physically abused by her husband as well. Her life worsened after her husband met with an accident. When the government was looking for women to construct toilets in 2017, a self-help group was created and Phoolmani was made the leader of that group in her village. This made Phoolmani’s husband angrier. She recalls,
“But I went ahead. I started carrying my son on my back to survey the number of toilets to be constructed. I used to return home very tired… and find my husband waiting at the gate, ready to beat me. I used to cry and break down. But the work I was doing gave me confidence… it made me happy, I carried on.”
Apart from the beatings, her husband one day sold the sacks of cement she had in the house, then another day he broke her phone. That is when she decided to move out. She left with her son and moved to her neighbor Vimal Munda’s house for 10 days. Soon the villagers started talking ill about her behind her back as per Munda but Phoolmani paid no heed to such things. Things started to look better when the government sanctioned Rs 12,000 for each toilet and the women masons charged Rs 2,100 per construction for their labor. Phoolmani along with three other Dashmi Devi, Chalo Devi, and Heera Devi shut all the villagers’ ill mouth with their hard work and dedication. Phoolmani Devi’s hard work paid off when she received an award from M Venkaiah Naidu, the Vice President of India in September last year at the ‘Swachhta Hi Seva’ program organized by the state government. Because of the courage showed by Phoolmani Devi and numerous others the women no longer have to worry about going out to defecate or urinate in the open, there is only smile on the faces of the people of this village.