Akshay Kumar: Toilet isn’t a dirty word – my latest film made me love the loo | Akshay Kumar | Global development

We need to change our minds about toilets. A woman from a small village in rural India, Anita Narre, shocked the nation when she left her husband two days after her wedding. But it wasn’t the speed of her decision that caused the astonishment; it was the reason. Outraged that her new home lacked a toilet, Narre refused to return until her husband built her one. Her story, which inspired my latest film, cuts to the very heart of one of the biggest crises facing my country today.

It wasn’t until I met Narre and other women like her that I understood the true scale of the issue. During my research for the film, I found out that half of India’s population – 564 million people – defecate in the open because they lack access to a toilet. But I didn’t know what this means for millions of women across the country. I had no idea about the fear these women experience every single time nature calls, or that so many women face assault and rape while going to the toilet outdoors.

Akshay Kumar. Photograph: Dabboo Ratnani

The threat of violence and the leers of men mean that most women wait until nightfall before trudging out into the open. Many hold their bladders for up to 13 hours at a time, exposing them to urinary tract infections and other health problems.

This isn’t the only awful consequence of India’s lack of toilets. Defecating in the open spreads disease and pollutes drinking water, damaging the health of millions of my countrymen and women. Of the 1.7 million people worldwide who die every year because of poor sanitation and unsafe water, more than 600,000 die in India. Poor sanitation kills more Indian children under the age of five than anything else. Those who survive often grow up malnourished and stunted from diarrhoea, typhoid and worm infections.

That’s why I was so keen to attach my name to Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. The film tells the tale of a wife who refuses to return to her husband until he builds her a toilet. By bringing the issue of open defecation to Bollywood’s silver screen, I hope to inspire millions of people to tackle a problem that blights so many lives and deprives women and men of their safety, basic dignity and privacy.

The government already understands the scale of the issue. Our country is spending about $29bn (£24bn) on building millions of toilets, in a drive to get rid of open defecation by 2019. The problem is that many people still believe building toilets inside homes – where we wash, cook…

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