Seema Dhamdhere

Sanitation Changemaker

Beyond Infrastructure: The Quest for Gender-Centric Sanitation

Seema Dhamdhere, a distinguished civil servant in Maharashtra, embarked on a remarkable journey that transformed urban sanitation across the state. Her tenure began in 1984, spanning various departments like Public Health, Maternal and Child Health, Education, and Administration, setting the stage for her significant role in the Urban Development Department. Her arrival in the Urban Development Department marked a turning point. Amidst the complex tapestry of projects, she found herself amidst the inception of monumental missions - Swachh Bharat and the Smart City Mission. It was a time when open defecation and sanitation woes plagued the nation, especially its women. Seema's transition from health and education to urban development provided a unique perspective, especially concerning women's health and dignity. Her commitment to addressing the struggles faced by women, particularly in matters of sanitation, became her driving force.

Collaborating with the government, Seema spearheaded citizen-centric programs, driving a mission that transcended government labels. The mission was embraced by citizens across 400-plus cities, uniting diverse demographics towards a singular goal: eliminating open defecation.

She reminisced about her initial days, attending conferences where the core theme resonated deeply: "Apne Toilets, Apne Swasthya." The transition from educating women about reproductive health to combating the indignity of open defecation was a significant leap. The missions brought forth a wave of change. They struck a chord, not just with the government but with the public - a collective movement to reclaim dignity, especially for women. The idea that a woman's self-worth should not be compromised by the lack of basic facilities propelled Seema and her team forward.

Her vision extended beyond mere infrastructure. It was about liberating women from the shackles of societal norms that restricted their movement and dignity. She saw sanitation as a cornerstone for gender equity. The absence of proper sanitation, she argued, not only affected physical health but also shattered a woman's dignity and safety. Her approach was about ensuring women's safety, providing facilities for personal hygiene, and acknowledging their fundamental right to access these amenities. The journey toward gender equity in urban sanitation became her passion.

The journey wasn't easy; it demanded collaboration with numerous stakeholders, NGOs, UNDP, World Bank, and more. Seema acknowledged that achieving success in sanitation required a collective effort. She emphasized that involving citizens and aligning stakeholders on the same platform facilitated substantial progress in this realm. Having been among the few women in urban development, Seema envisioned a more inclusive future. She believed that greater representation of women in this domain would yield profound results, aligning closely with women's needs and their pivotal role in societal hygiene. Throughout her career, Seema applied a gendered lens to her work, advocating for the underprivileged and championing initiatives that elevated women's dignity. Her dedication was evident in initiatives providing sanitary facilities on highways, state transport buses, and slums, easing the challenges faced by women in accessing basic amenities.

Reflecting on her trajectory, Seema encourages future leaders to amplify efforts in this regard. Her message to future leaders echoed: "The cornerstone of progress lies in recognizing the fundamental right of women to access dignified sanitation. It's not just about building toilets; it's about upholding dignity and safety for every woman in our society."

Seema's story wasn't merely about her tenure or achievements; it was a testament to a woman's determination to rewrite the narrative, one toilet at a time. Her journey illuminated a path where women's dignity and rights were not negotiable and where urban development equated to gender equity.