Walking through villages in Northeast India, I was astounded and dismayed by the devastating impact of the water and sanitation crisis. My path quickly became a Indian woman’s journey as I walked miles to the nearest water source. Shallow and open contaminated wells awaited me at the end of the trek. I sat and listened to women describe their need for clean water and desire to have proper sanitation facilities.

Gram Vikas-Woman cleaning the toilet roomMy mission to empower women to gain access to clean water and proper sanitation took me to the rural and poor state of Orissa. What I discovered was something remarkable. Clean water was flowing freely from taps in people’s homes, women were bathing their children in well-built bath houses and children from different castes were playing together outside. Men and women were sitting together in community meetings discussing water and sanitation, economic growth and trade for their community.

In reality, many rural communities in Orissa lack access to clean water and proper sanitation. Poverty is not the only reason that people lack this precious resource. The issue is deeply rooted in the society’s social structure. India’s caste system is one of the world’s longest standing social hierarchies. The Dalit people are considered “untouchables” and outcasts in society. In Orissa, Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same water source as those from a higher caste. Even worse, Dalits are given a scheduled time to collect water.

Government schemes have brought water and sanitation “solutions” to the poor. “Toilet graveyards” are littered throughout the countryside. Weeds are growing out of abandoned public open air toilets. As a result of the government installing shallow wells that inevitably run dry, non-working hand pumps are abandoned.

Is this a dream?

Just because a person is poor, it doesn’t mean they deserve poor solutions.  – Joe Madiath

Talking with Gram Vikas village chief about WASH1I listened to these powerful words from Joe Madiath, the Founder of  Gram Vikas. Gram Vikas has been working in Orissa for over 30 years to bring clean water and sanitation to marginalized communities. Last year, I had the pleasure to meet Joe and spend 3 weeks with his field team in Orissa. I learned about their model to bring 24 hour piped water supply and proper sanitation to some of the most remote communities in Orissa. The Gram Vikas Mantra includes community cost sharing, social and gender inclusion. Their approach requires a high level of community engagement and participation. Every family must agree to total sanitation before they can receive clean water. Communities must contribute the raw materials to construct bathing rooms and toilet facilities. When I first met Joe, I thought “Is this even possible?”

Can clean water and proper sanitation bring communities together?

The answer is:


Women, men, Dalits and those from upper castes must be included in the conversation. Before Gram Vikas will work with a community, everyone must agree on their need for total sanitation. A woman’s voice must be heard. The whole community must work together.

Talking with Gram Vikas communitiesOf course community cooperation does not come without a price. Many women and Dalits have fought for their rights to speak on this important community issue. Women often are forced to stand up to male villagers, a task normally against cultural tradition, in order to reach a compromise.  Women continue to fight for the right to clean water, even if they are excluded from the conversation.

It was a powerful experience to sit and hear how clean water and proper sanitation is changing entire communities in one of the most neglected regions of India.

On Tuesday, fellow blogger Jordan Teague kicked off World Water week by talking about World Water Week and Women. She posed the question, “What would the world look like if the simple act of having clean water nearby was realized?”

As World Water Week comes to a close, I want to share some fantastic news with you. Charity Water is partnering with Gram Vikas to bring clean water to 100 villages. Help promote social equality and break the cycle of poverty through supporting their campaign.

By clicking here you can start your own campaign and help restore dignity among communities in Orissa.

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