The fact that Swachh Bharat Mission was kicked off by the prime minister himself suggests to me that the Indian government is serious about a cleaner India. At the Gates Foundation, we are proud to support your sweeping effort by investing in one piece of it: sanitation innovations across the country.

Today, half of Indians don’t have access to safe toilets, which has far-reaching consequences—from higher rates of child mortality to increases in sexual violence.

Part of the problem is that for too long the world has invested in sanitation infrastructure that doesn’t work for everyone. The toilets, sewers, and wastewater treatment systems used in the developed world require vast amounts of land, energy, and water, and they are expensive to build and operate.

Moreover, toilets only serve their purpose if they are used. And nobody wants to use a toilet that isn’t clean or safe, particularly for women and girls.

So I have been asking a lot of questions: How do we provide facilities that meet the needs of communities? How do we maintain them so that they are healthy and safe?

That’s when I heard about the women’s group I visited in Delhi. The community toilet block near them had broken, so they were walking two kilometers each way to use another one. Not only was this time-consuming, it was unsafe. Many young girls would choose to relieve themselves outside rather than risk being harassed on the walk at night. They even changed their diets to avoid needing to use the bathroom.

Then a group of women from the community chose to take matters into their own hands. They advocated for a new community toilet block near them. They worked with the contractor to make design changes that would suit their needs, such as a privacy wall between the men’s and women’s side and provision for the safe disposal of sanitary pads. Now they are supervising the site to make sure that it stays clean, functional, and safe.

For me, this was a powerful example of what happens when you give women the support they need to be agents of their own destinies. With the confidence and wherewithal to advocate for their own needs, these heroic women have also been powerful advocates for the needs of their children and their community as a whole.

This is the spirit of Swachh Bharat: a citizen movement to improve all lives by cleaning up India’s cities and towns. We aim to support these citizens by investing in solutions they can use to reach their goals for their futures.

Published in collaboration with Impatient Optimists

Author: As co-chair, Melinda Gates shapes and approves foundation strategies, reviews results, advocates for the foundation’s issues, and helps set the overall direction of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Image: A girl prepares to take a bath. REUTERS