How a village built 40 toilets—with a wedding necklace

In a small village called Kalvakota in Telangana, a woman decided to part with her wedding necklace to help 40 poor families build their toilets.

Azera Parveen Rahman
A lady looking at herself in the mirror.
UNICEF India
24 June 2019

In a small village called Kalvakota in Telangana, a woman decided to part with her wedding necklace to help 40 poor families build their toilets. As they stepped towards a healthier future, they returned the favour, and Rajita’s necklace came back to adorn her, more precious than ever.

Like most married woman in India, 38-year-old Yennamaneni Rajita of a small village in Telangana held her wedding jewellery very close to her heart. The Vasanta Haaram , a beautiful gold necklace that her father gifted her during her wedding was of particular emotional value. That she would readily part with that necklace in order to help some poor families in her village build toilets, would have been an unimaginable idea a few years back. But this is exactly what she did.

As she sat in the veranda of her house in Kalvakota, a village in the Jagtial district, Rajita narrated how, two years back, she became consumed with a desire to help some women in her village—and their families—who had to face a gamut of challenges just to relieve themselves every morning.

How it began

It all started with a Gram Panchayat meeting in her village— and a preceding Mandal meeting — organised by the Swachh Bharat Mission with the support of IKEA and UNICEF — on the importance of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities. Rajita, who is a college graduate, was selected to be part of a team to do a survey on how many households had toilets, and how many were required to construct one, in a bid to make the village open defecation-free. The team was provided training and at the end of the door-to-door survey, the four-women-team found that 80 households were without toilets.

“Of these families, I realised that 40 households were too poor to even begin the construction of a toilet,” Rajita said, sitting against a wall of framed pictures of her family in her home. The construction of a toilet costs approximately Rs 16,000. Once a family begins the construction, the government gives an incentive of Rs 12,000. For these families, Rajita said, even that initial work was too expensive to bear.

“All these women who could not afford a toilet are like my sisters. We meet often, as part of the self-help group, and know each other. As a woman, I could understand what kind of problems they faced in the absence of a toilet, and it left me disturbed. I wanted to help them,” she said.

Most of the families in Kalvakota roll bidis—earning approximately Rs 175 for rolling 1,000 bidis—as a source of living.

Two women talking outside a ladies toilet.
UNICEF India
Two women talking outside a ladies toilet.

Jewellery to the rescue

Rajita did not want to ask her husband for help—he has a small business—and decided to pawn her wedding necklace for money. When she first mentioned her thoughts to him, he did not respond, but after repeated persuasion, he agreed. “I immediately went to the local moneylender and gave my necklace. He gave me Rs 50,000.” With this money, she helped the families buy cement, bricks, doors, and pay for labour charges.

The work was complete within a few weeks.

Fifty-year-old Akhunuri Lakshmi, who now has a toilet right outside her house thanks Rajita for making her everyday life much easier. “All my life I have walked almost a kilometre every morning to the stream to relieve myself. In the rains, I would take an umbrella, and would often encounter snakes and scorpions on the way,” Lakshmi, who suffers from diabetes and heart disease, said. A single woman, she stays with her aged aunt, who had to face the same ordeal every day. “We were used to fighting our bodies if the need arose at odd hours of the day. But with this,” she said pointing at the bright blue door of the toilet, “we can go whenever we want. We don’t have to go outside.”

Forty-year-old Tekkam Gangarajam has a similar story. She works as a bidi roller and her husband is a tailor; their two daughters, who are studying in college, are more relieved than anyone else at having a toilet in their house. For them, the toughest time of the month—of having to go outside during their menstrual cycle—has now become convenient, safer, and more hygienic.

One last fight

There was however one more hitch. While the toilets were now in place, some families were still not using it. Drawing from her training and her will to change things, Rajita visited those families and helped them understand the pitfalls of open defecation, like frequent gastrointestinal problems. She also motivated them to wash their hands with soap after using the toilet and before eating food.

Life comes a full circle

As things took a turn for the better in Kalvakota, the beneficiaries were so touched with Rajita’s gesture that as soon as they got their first cheque from the government incentive—of Rs 6000—they immediately returned their dues to her. Rajita took the money back to the moneylender and got her wedding necklace back. All within two months time.

The villagers now often come to Rajita with any problem they have and she and her husband offer all the help they can.

“This necklace has become even more precious to me now,” she said, touching the gold chain.

Life, as they say, comes a full circle.