Sarika Saluja, General Manager of the World Toilet Organisation, based in Singapore, describes herself as a rebel.
Brought up in the Northern region of India, she chose to walk a very different path from the one expected of her.
As a result, she is now what some might call an angel, working to end the global sanitation crisis. I was particularly interested to learn how her work improves the lives of some of the poorest women in the world.
First, tell me about your journey from growing-up in a small city in India, to becoming General Manager of an international non-profit organisation?
“I always wanted a career. It wasn’t something that was encouraged in my family or the region. Even now, it is not easy for a woman, especially if you’re born into a patriarchal society. In my time, it was very hard.”
“My neighbour told my mum if you let her study, she will not find a husband.”
“When my grandmother was very young, she migrated to India from Pakistan, after the partition in 1947. Her family had to leave behind all they had, and rebuild their life from scratch, in a new city and a new country. These experiences made her a very strong woman.
So, despite being illiterate, she achieved a lot on confidence alone, but she wanted me to have an education so I could do more. She encouraged me to pursue a Masters degree in the development sector, and was delighted when I achieved a first.
She instilled in me to think creatively, and to never give-up.”
“I tease my siblings and cousins and say, you were saved because of me!”
“I was blessed to have my grandparents, who made it possible for me to get a higher education. Also, it’s made it easier for the younger ones in my family to pursue their dreams.
And now, I have a husband who encourages my work, he’ll say, you go – I’ll take care of it. I have the support of so many wonderful people in my life.”
A lack of sanitation is one of humanities greatest problems – what first bought this cause to your attention?
“It was the personal pain of nearly losing my own son. We were living in Singapore at the time, but when visiting India he got very sick from drinking contaminated water. He ended-up in hospital with severe diarrhoea.
The more I travelled for work, the more pain I saw; I found out that many kids were dying because of this, but nobody seemed bothered.”
And, I realised how dangerous lack of sanitation was for women, but it just wasn’t being talked about.”
Access to basic sanitation is a human right, so why do women need toilets more than men?
“Women are effected the most by lack of sanitation, for many reasons. Men are more comfortable defecating in open space, but it is not the same for women.”
1 in 3 women worldwide risk shame, disease, sexual harassment and rape because they have nowhere safe to go to the toilet.
“Lack of access to toilets means that women have no choice but to go out in the open, which makes them vulnerable to attack. In many villages in India, women go out as early as 4am, while it’s still dark.
The more deforestation in their area, the further they have to travel because there is no bush or tree to hide behind. Men follow them, and rape them. Much of this does not come out, because women are ashamed to share their stories.
Girls miss school or drop out of education altogether, because they do not have a toilet where they can wash out their menstrual cloths or change their pads, in private.”
“When working women are pregnant and need to use the toilet more, there is no where for them to go.
And, as a mother you can suffer financially and emotionally; not going to work so you can look after a sick child, or even dealing with the pain of your child dying.”
“We advocate to improve the situation for girls and women, and give them better access to toilets with washing facilities and clean water.
Through the World Toilet College in India, we improve livelihood options for women by teaching them how to build toilets.”
Can you tell me more about the work you do, at the World Toilet Organisation (WTO)?
“First, it was all about toilets. Working initially in South East Asia, then India and China – where we teach organisations who benefit from government funded schemes, how to construct them.
Then we realised we needed to do more, and that building toilets was just the tip of the iceberg.
We needed to go deeper into the issue; waste management, sanitation at schools, menstrual hygiene, education, and more training.
WTO is about advocacy, and collaborating with others to create consortiums to work on all of these issues.”
Over a third of the world’s population is without access to toilets, and billions more without sewage treatment? Do you think there is a lack of awareness about the suffering this causes to people around the world?
“Everyone talks about water as an issue but no one is interested in sanitation, because the solutions require a local approach.
In India, we were able to raise awareness about the need for behavioural change.”
“Just building toilets doesn’t mean people use them. When the toilets are clean, then they will use them!”
“When people use the toilets, people wash their hands. And ultimately people’s hygiene and health improves. Through our campaigns, we were able to raise awareness of this.”
“Chinese schools have some of the best computer labs in the world, yet pupils poo in a hole in the ground.”
“In China, the problem is school sanitation; they do not feel it is needed. So, we want to create awareness of the issues, and encourage them to adopt our Rainbow School Toilets programme – the program covers two aspects; building the toilets, and educating children on basic health and hygiene.”
“You need to change how people think about waste management, everywhere.
You would be surprised to hear that during the rains in London, the Thames gets flooded with sewage – you would never think of that.
So, different countries have different issues, and need different solutions.”
The WTO works with Reckitt Benckiser, an international FMCG company, which helps fund the World Toilet College. Brands often get accused of purpose-washing when getting involved in these type of initiatives – how do you feel about this?
“In India, there is a CSR law that 2% of earnings should go towards development causes – it became mandatory for corporate brands to get involved with social projects. I think there are brands that exploit this, and other brands that are really doing social good.
Our experience with Reckitt Benckiser has been very positive. With their funding, we’ve been able to start two World Toilet Colleges, with the purpose of making sanitation dignified; training over 10,000 people in the last 3 1/2 years.”
“It’s also about how ethical we are – if we were not ethical then we would take any money offered to us.”
“We have a right to say no, if it does not align with our organisation’s mission.
It’s an opportunity and a responsibility to both the brands and the non-profit organisation. Many NGOs in India have been shut down because they were unethical, or not doing the right things.”
I’ve met Jack Sim, the founder of WTO. He is a funny man, a whirlwind of ideas; inspirational but I can imagine it’s challenging, too. How do you work together?
“He works on some spiritual realm, I’m in the earthly realm making things happen – the yin and yang.”
“Jack advocates for sanitation at a global level, engaging people around the world. I am on the ground executing the ideas; prioritising and bringing structure to them.”
“If you want something to be sustainable, bring more women into the picture.”
“I believe that men are good at creating solutions but sustainability is ensured by women. When women get hooked on to an idea, they will invest a lot of energy into nurturing and growing that idea, and making it a success.
We don’t just need a physical solution to problems, there needs to be feminine energy to nurture, and sustain the solutions.”
“Society has become more materialistic, we have lost that balance. We need to regain it by bringing more women into power, both in the decision making, and at the executional level.”
“Female-centric thinking will find solutions to the problems relating to the climate, and every other problem.
For me, everything is connected – so when we restore the balance within us, we also restore it around us.
We need the right balance of yin and yang to make our ecosystem sustainable. It would not only impact society in a positive way, but also bring a lot of harmony to this planet.”
What is next for the WTO?
“Jack’s goal is that everyone around the world should have a toilet in their house. A dream difficult to achieve in a person’s lifetime!
So, I’m working hard to develop a strong organisational structure and brand culture, to ensure that the WTO can continue to do good work, for many years to come.”