Reaching the unreached: ensuring Dalit communities in Nepal have decent toilets

6 min read
The toilet block at a secondary school in Lahan, Nepal, with a female-friendly toilet. T
WaterAid/Shivani Chemjong

In Nepal, Dalit communities are often the last to gain access to essential services, including water and sanitation. Hannah Gray shares how The Beacon Project our project to bring clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to everyone in Lahan has been working to address this.

Good sanitation and hygiene are essential for people to live healthy, dignified lives. Decent sanitation and hygiene facilities provide a safe and sanitary place to go to the toilet, somewhere to wash hands with clean water and a place for women and girls to safely manage their menstrual health and hygiene.

Despite improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) provision in Nepal, one in four people still don’t have access to a toilet at home. This presents a significant public health risk and means people have to compromise their dignity and safety to defecate or manage their menstrual health and hygiene. And without decent toilets and hygiene facilities at school, girls are more likely to stay at home while menstruating, further exacerbating gender inequalities. In Nepal, this issue divides society along caste lines – those of lower caste in Hindu culture often go without these essentials because of social stigma and lack of investment in their communities.

Providing universal access to WASH means going the extra mile to reach such marginalised communities. Since 2018, The Beacon Project has been working to address this issue as part of its wider objective to improve WASH provision in the town of Lahan in south-eastern Nepal.

Dalit communities face barriers to accessing decent toilets

In Lahan, most households without access to a toilet are in Dalit communities, a marginalised caste often geographically and socially segregated. Dalit communities experience multiple levels of disadvantage – often they are very poor and, despite legislation, actively discriminated against. They often rely on precarious and unpleasant daily wage work, like sweeping roads and cleaning toilets, and are usually the last communities to gain access to essential services, including water and sanitation.

Disadvantaged Dalit households face several barriers to building their own toilets: often they cannot afford to build them; their houses are too small; and they often can’t get permission to build outdoor toilets because they don’t own the land they live on. With no public toilets close to home, women are vulnerable to harassment or violence when travelling long distances to use shared toilets or defecate in the open. Without decent toilets, Dalit communities face increased risk of illness because drinking water sources (shallow tube wells or dug wells) are more likely to be contaminated.

Through the Beacon Project, we are addressing this injustice (PDF) by providing clean and safe toilets and handwashing facilities for Lahan’s Dalit communities.

How The Beacon Project is supporting Dalit communities to access toilets

Community toilets

A community toilet in Dinabhadri, Ward 2, Lahan, Nepal.
A community toilet in Dinabhadri, Ward 2, Lahan, Nepal.
WaterAid/ Mani Karmacharya

In 2019 The Beacon Project reviewed the status of WASH services in Dalit communities, which helped us to prioritise the communities most in need. Given Dalit households have limited space for toilets, our solution is building a central community toilet block that community members can walk to from home.   

Ensuring a community toilet block is fit for purpose and sustainably managed is crucial. We have learned that careful discussion with the local government is required to discern whether land can be allocated and if there is political support. A crucial step before building begins is to establish a diverse community user committee to manage and maintain the toilet block. Without this committee, the facility could fall into disrepair and the investment be wasted.   

One such community toilet block constructed as part of The Beacon Project is in ward 11, in the Padariya Dalit community. Formally inaugurated by the Mayor of Lahan, the facility was handed over to the community user committee on World Toilet Day in 2020. More than 220 people from 31 households now use the block, each family contributing 100 rupees a month (about £0.60) to the user committee to ensure the communal areas are cleaned and maintained and the septic tank emptied.

School toilets

The Beacon Project recognises that children must have access to decent toilets in schools to fully participate in their education. We have built and renovated toilets in 13 public schools in Lahan, serving large Dalit communities and benefitting almost 5,000 students and teachers. Previously children would go to the toilet outside the school grounds in the bushes, and older girls would miss school during menstruation because they had nowhere clean and safe to manage their menstrual health and hygiene.

Alongside toilet renovations, The Beacon Project installs handwashing stations and bio-sand filters for drinking water. To encourage girls’ attendance, we ask schools to set up a room with a day bed for them to rest when they have menstrual cramps and a cupboard with free menstrual health products. Older students – both boys and girls – are taught how to make reusable sanitary pads out of cloth.

The room with a day bed and materials to provide relief during menstruation, established in the Children’s Club office at a secondary school in Lahan.
The room with a day bed and materials to provide relief during menstruation, established in the Children’s Club office at Anjali’s school in Lahan.
WaterAid/Shivani Chemjong

To ensure the school takes ownership of the improved facilities, they are formally handed over to the school management committee. Each school also establishes a Children's Club, a hygiene-focussed small group of students and a teacher who ensure facilities are kept clean, monitor handwashing and run special events.

At one secondary school in the centre of Lahan, there are more than 1,200 students, including five girls who are visually impaired. One of the girls, Anjali, 15, recalls the shame she endured before the improvements to her school’s toilets:  

"We were compelled to go to the nooks and corners for urinating and defecating," she said. "Although I could not see anything through my own eyes, I felt like others saw me. Recalling that I feel embarrassed even now."

A schoolgirl washing her hands with soap and water at the well-managed handwashing station in the girls’ toilet at her school in Lahan.
Anjali washing her hands with soap and water at the well-managed handwashing station in the girls’ toilet at her school.
WaterAid/Shivani Chemjong

Anjali is joyful that she can now use a toilet independently, safe in the knowledge that the cubicle is clean and private. She knows where the soap and tap are, and where to go to get sanitary pads.

In the participatory film below – scripted, directed, shot and produced by a group of students from another secondary school in Lahan – pupils talk about the issues facing girls in schools without decent facilities. Thanks to funding raised during our 2021/22 winter appeal, including match funding from the UK Government, their school has new, clean toilets and running water.

Next steps: managing facilities for the future, and improving WASH in healthcare facilities

These improvements for the most marginalised people of Lahan are significant, but there is more to do. Delivering toilet facilities is an important part of the sanitation journey, but the next part is sustainable management of the waste from these toilets.

Lahan does not have a sewerage system or a treatment plant for faecal sludge – sludge is currently deposited untreated onto fields or into watercourses, causing health risks and environmental pollution. As one of its five objectives, The Beacon Project is working closely with Lahan Municipality to develop a faecal sludge treatment plant that can safely manage the sludge collected throughout the town and turn it into fertiliser for local farms. Safe treatment and disposal of sludge will improve hygiene for residents across the town, especially for those who work in the fields or live near informal disposal points. 

Finally, as part of its objective to ensure universal WASH access in Lahan, in 2023 The Beacon Project will expand work into healthcare facilities to provide improved WASH facilities, continuing to improve public health in the town.

Find out more about The Beacon Project.

Hannah Gray is Beacon Project – UK Programme Manager at WaterAid UK.

Top image: The toilet block at Anjali’s school in Lahan, Nepal, with a female-friendly toilet. Toilets designed as part of The Beacon Project are always accessible to people with mobility challenges.