Stories Behind the Statistics

a1“They know they should, but they don’t like to boil the water because they say it spoils the taste.” The women in front of us, dressed in a rainbow of brightly colored saris and headscarves, laughed loudly. Meanwhile, our team exchanged perplexed glances. This was, quite honestly, something we had never considered.

Before coming here, we did not know these women. We had an idea of the number of hours they walked to get water, which sicknesses afflicted their families and how frequently. While we certainly did not assume that our readings and statistics created an accurate representation of their lives, we also did not fully understand how the issues of water and sanitation are small pieces that fit into a much larger narrative. As a result, we had packed and brought with us more assumptions than we initially realized.

a2For some context, we are in Bangalore, India working with an organization called Navya Disha. They work on creating awareness surrounding the importance of Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH) and in partnership with their parent Microfinance Institution, Grameen Koota, they mobilize Water Credit loans. These loans are used for the construction of WASH projects like water connections to the house and personal toilets.

Much of our focus coming into the project was on how these material changes—the presence of a water connection or toilet could be the gateway to improvements in health, wellbeing, and livelihood. These amenities can lead to decreased sickness, increased time for female children in school, and increased income-generation. Through our focus groups, though, we have found that in order to make these changes happen and in order to make them sustainable they must come in conjunction with other changes.

For example, several women have talked to us about their water collection process. Water is available, for some, two days a week from night until morning. They take plastic pots to the water tap and make multiple trips to their houses and store their water in large drums and containers that line the floor of their kitchens for use during the week. This process takes them approximately 2 hours each time and they pay 300 rupees a month for this access. If they paid a little bit more each month, they would be able to build their own personal water connection and have consistent water access without having to travel. At first glance, the choice seems obvious—get the water connection.

a3More often than not, we found that the majority of the women were renting their homes, and therefore did not find it necessary to invest in a living situation that was relatively temporary. It made more sense to them to invest it in their children’s education or celebrating big festivals, an integral part of the culture. So in this case, in order for the water connection to become a priority, other material changes must come beforehand.

In a conversation with Anand Yadwad, the Executive Director of Navya Disha, we gained another sliver of perspective. “Urban people are forced to have sanitation… because in urban areas they do not have a place to go for open defecation. In rural areas, you just walk 50-100 meters, you are out of the village and you can sit in the open air, so the external pressure is not there.” Demand-generation, in this instance, takes a very different form, since they have a viable alternative available, free of cost.

The motivation for construction and use of a toilet has to come from behavioral changes. There is no singular presentation or incentive that can create this kind of change—it requires patience, persistence, and a nuanced knowledge of the target audience. This nuanced understanding comes from listening to the stories of the individuals and seeing how WASH issues fit into their personal stories.

a4The more time we spend here, the more opportunities we have to unpack the assumptions we first came with. In doing so, we are constantly learning about how much we do not know.  We continue to unfold the ever-present layers of the women’s stories before us in order to gain a greater understanding. Although our team wishes we had more time in JP Nagar 9th phase, we intend to dedicate our last two weeks to seeking out the stories behind the statistics.

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