Becoming an activist for social change

By Sweta Patnik, Programme Officer, WaterAid India

5 Jun 2014WASH Matters

Asha Soren, 31, lives in a village called Bada Telo, in Godda district, India. She is one of only a few girls in her community who went to schooland has become a prominent social change activist in her area, becoming well known locally for her hard work and courage.

When she was 28, Asha’s husband died and she was left with three children to care for. As a widow she was not supposed to work but she took a job as a farmhand nearby. This was not a popular decision with her father and brothers-in-law, who feared she would damage their family’s reputation.

Mapping her own journey

Asha quickly impressed her employers at the farm, who put her in charge of operations. She gradually realised that she was good at connecting with people and that others sought her advice.

When some of the local women invited her to join the village’s self-help women's group she accepted. Within a few days, she took on the tasks of managing registers, keeping accounts and organising their activities, helped by her previous education. Membership of the group increased and financial collections went up.

Introduction to Sathee

Asha joined Sathee, WaterAid's local partner organisation in 2006, to promote sanitation and hygiene issues to the local community. Building on her previous experience, she began speaking to local people about safe drinking water and personal hygiene. She built relationships in the community and they began to confide in her.

Asha decided to work collaboratively, working with community members, including children and older people, to encourage them to adopt, adopt healthy behaviours and demand services from different service providers.

Resolving conflict

Seeing the way people responded to her skills, Sathee put Asha in charge of 11 villages in the panchayat of Babupur. The village elders invited her to serve on the village panchayat recognising her persuasion and negotiation abilities to resolve conflict situations. On one occasion, she gained the respect of the community by dealing calmly and firmly with two drunk men in her community meeting.

Creating a better environment

Gradually, the sanitation messages Asha had been spreading took root in the area, with people taking greater ownership for their hygiene and overall wellbeing. Her village has gone from having no toilets to having 50 toilets.

Handwashing has become normal and fewer people are falling sick. People who previously defecated in the open, thinking that toilets were expensive, are now aware of the difference safe sanitation can make.

Asha also focuses on the cost effective approaches that are available and how good hygiene practices can come at no extra cost. Her aim is for every member of her panchayat to practice healthy and hygienic behaviour.

This article is part of our WASH Matters series, regular insights into our programme and project work in Africa and South Asia. Discover more here >