Resolving to ‘care for toilet more than her home’, Prema mobilized a group of determined women to tackle the lack of safe sanitation in her community.
When Prema got married, she moved to an informal settlement in Tiruchirappalli. She set foot in a small, rented house lacking in one important amenity: a toilet. To her dismay, there was a single, shoddy toilet meant to be used by the hundreds of people inhabiting the neighbourhood. During rain, the toilet would overflow. With no one to clean, it would fester with insects and germs. The unhygienic conditions exposed Prema and her neighbourhood to serious health implications. There was also a deep sense of shame and isolation, the unhygienic toilet prevented Prema from being able to invite anyone over to their house.
Prema, however, refused to accept circumstances as they were. She approached the Christian Missionary Organization, which was constructing a building in the vicinity. She shared the inhumane suffering of her community and voiced the need for a functional, clean toilet for all. While the Priest ensured the construction of a well-made, infra-structurally sound Community Toilet, he anticipated that the maintenance of the toilet would become a challenge. To address this challenge, Prema stepped in to ensure the toilet would remain clean and usable and be a dignified experience for all who access it. She mobilized a group of 12 determined women and together they formed the Udhayam Women's Self-Help Group – responsible for operation and maintenance of the Community Toilet.
Back in Tuticorin, Prema’s family disapproved of her pursuit. They were ashamed, unable to fathom why Prema would want to work at a toilet, of all places. In the last 20 years, hundreds of families have gotten access to a clean toilet due to Udhayam Women's SHG. The women feel proud to state that even today their toilet is as clean as a park and sustained by its own revenue!
Today, Prema’s children are well educated, employed in formal jobs and keep urging her to retire from managing the community toilet. Prema and a lot of the older community members even have access to individual household toilets today. She, however, reminds her children of how they’ve struggled in the past. It has fostered a fiery sense of duty that she feels towards others who might be in the same situation as they were earlier. She regards cleanliness as an issue of the utmost importance.
Watch Tracing the Tracks to hear directly from Prema: https://youtu.be/B30mMDyfQuU?si=f0lD9jfeCtwt12aw