In Rajasthan, especially in the districts of Udaipur, Banswada, Dungarpur, people have been traditionally drinking water from bawdis (stepped wells) or nadis (ponds). A horrible consequence was that these water bodies became vehicles that spread the deadly guinea worm or naru, as it was identified in Rajasthan. It was a disease which shortened the life span and left people maimed. These three districts counted for up to 70 percent of the problem in India.
Taking cognizance of the problem, in the 1980s, a women’s empowerment programme around water and sanitation was designed by the Government of Rajasthan and Unicef to eliminate naru.
Naru larvae are released into stagnant water by an infected person as he or she enters the water body. The worm releases up to 30 lakh larvae at a time, and they are ingested by water cyclops (a microorganism), which enter the human body if the water is used for drinking. Cyclops dies in the human body, but not the naru larvae, which penetrate the stomach lining and enter body tissues, where they mature and then find their way to the skin.
There, the larva secretes a substance that causes severe itching and results in a break in the skin through scratching. It also causes allergic reaction, rash and fever. And as water is soothing, the tormented patient seeks relief in open water, which results in naru ejecting more larvae, creating a vicious circle.
The root cause for naru was lack of potable water. The programme was envisaged involving women, who deal with water as their primary concern. For us, it was surely an opportunity to build understanding around the disease among women. Indeed, it would also help women take up leadership in the community and convert open sources of water to hand pump-based water supply.
Unicef had a programme officer called Vijaya Chauhan, who took up the responsibility of leading the project. One day she called on us and asked us if we would work on a series of capacity-building workshops with rural women – such that they could lead the movement to eradicate the disease.
We took it as a challenge to build an empowerment-based programme, which would equip women with skills to handle the disease. It would educate them and the community, and build a hand pump-based water supply system, which would service the whole village. It would ensure that traditional bavdis weren’t used any more.
We began with one of our most intensive programmes, which went a long way to eradicate the guinea worm from the three districts. Vijaya Chauhan was a passionate professional. She didn’t let any detail escape her. A bundle of energy, she would be present in every training workshop, and would rush wherever a case of guinea worm was reported. She would help women argue the case of building hand-pumps at sites which were convenient to them. Women were also trained to repair the hand pumps.
At the same time, women learnt an ayurvedic way to remove the worm. A small cut would be made with an antiseptic blade. The worm that wriggled out was rolled on a matchstick. Over hours and days it was slowly pulled out, ensuring it didn’t break.
As literacy was part of the programme, we learned how and in what circumstances it can help in such campaigns. Women were more eager to learn to read and write if the topic of engagement was related with their daily life, and not taught ABCD in the conventional way.Over time, many women began working as extension strategies, wrote songs, wall writings, took up the leadership and began owning the programme.
The lesson was loud and clear: Literacy cannot empower women if they are not given the opportunity to move out of their traditional roles in the kitchen.It will work only if they take charge of their lives and become leaders, taking up issues involving communities.
This is a major reason why governments have failed to make the desired impact on women’s literacy. Literacy is a tool. It cannot become an end in itself.
*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. Contact: gaganssethi@ DNA. This article first appeared in