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Eriam Sheikh is pictured after using the toilet on stilts or floating toilet built over a drain passing by Rafiq Nagar in Mumbai.
Manpreet Romana/UNICEF
Water & Sanitation

Indian Girl Asks the Police to Arrest Her Father for Not Building a Toilet and Sparks a Movement

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Globally, 2.3 billion people lack access to quality sanitation systems, which leads to contaminated water sources and widespread disease and death. You can join us in taking action to ensure universal access to sanitation here.

Seven-year-old Hanifa Zaara wanted a toilet really badly — she was tired of defecating out in open, finding the experience degrading — and so she made her father promise to build her one, according to the BBC.

Zaara lives in the Indian town of Ambur, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where toilets are rare. Throughout India, more than 569 million people practice open defecation, which can expose people to disease, contaminate water supplies, and increase the likelihood of sexual harassment and assault for women. According to UNICEF, 892 million people worldwide practice open defecation.

"I was ashamed to go outside and I felt bad when people looked at me," Zaara told the BBC.

Her father listened to her request and began building a toilet but he soon ran out of money. Rather than greeting the stalled progress with patience, the enterprising young girl decided to speed things up by reporting her father to the police for “cheating” her out of a toilet, according to the BBC.

Take Action: Demand Sanitation: Ask Corporates to End the Struggle for Safe Toilets

"I have been topping my class since nursery," she wrote in a letter she delivered to the police. "I am in the second grade now. And he is still only saying he will do it. This is a form of cheating, so please arrest him."

She also said that forcing her father to say when exactly the toilet would be complete would be a sufficient form of punishment.

Zaara’s father, Ehsanullah, was startled when he was summoned to the police station, bracing himself for the worst, but when he got there, he found his daughter taking the matter of the toilet into her own hands.

Read More: Lack of School Toilets Puts 620 Million Children in Danger Worldwide

"How long can I keep asking him for the same thing?” Zaara told the BBC. “He kept giving me the same excuse about not having enough money. So I went to the police."

The police were so moved by Zaara’s determination that they shared the story with district officials, who now plan to raise money to build 500 toilets in the town.

They also want to make Zaara a face of the national Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign), a multi-billion project that aims to end open defecation and bring quality sanitation to all citizens by 2019.

Read More: 8 Photos of How People Poop Around the World

The Indian government has been furiously building household toilets and latrines since the campaign was announced in 2014, but the effort has been dogged by cultural resistance, and many of the new structures have gone unused, according to National Geographic.

That’s because of a widespread preference for defecating in the open, which many people believe is a healthy alternative to toilets, and a widespread aversion to using latrines that have to be periodically cleaned, a task that many associate with the lowest rung of India’s caste system, according to the BBC.

Another problem is a lack of comprehensive sanitation systems that filter and sort sewage. Although latrines are an improvement from open defecation, they’re not ideal. Latrines often leak, their contents are often dumped in waterways, and people can even fall into them and die.

Read More: Rescuers in Kerala, India, Rush to Save Flood Victims Trapped by Filthy Waters

A report by WaterAid found that one-third of all toilets built in India since 2014 need major improvements to remain safe.

These problems will only be fixed with further investments, community participation, and countrywide resolve. If Zaara’s passion for a toilet is any indication of the views of the country’s youth, then it seems like the Clean India Campaign may be successful in the years ahead.