December 4, 2018

Natural Leaders: Achieving Total Sanitation Takes Everyone

A celebration of Open Defecation Free status in a rural village in Benin (Credit: PAPHyR)

How do we change lifelong habits? How do we change the lifelong habits of our neighbors in order to create a healthier environment? It has been a question that has been in the forefront of the minds of public health experts for decades, and in the realm of sanitation and hygiene, has been a hurdle to overcome in eliminating unsanitary conditions worldwide. What is found in rural Benin and other areas across the world, is that oftentimes it just takes one person or group stepping forward to create a healthier environment for their communities.

MCDI serves as the executing agency of the Global Sanitation Fund's Programme d'amélioration de l'accès à l'Assainissement et des Pratiques d'Hygiè ne en milieu Rural (PAPHyR) project, which works in rural Beninese communities to achieve more sanitary conditions to improve health outcomes. This work, using the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach, catalyzes community members to spark a change in their community to end open defecation, build toilet facilities, and introduce handwashing into routines. This approach does not include subsidies for building latrines, instead, the community is meant to be inspired to take action with their own resources to make the process sustainable.

In practice, triggering communities to reject open defecation and adopt more sanitary practices has often proven difficult in communities that for centuries have been living a different lifestyle. Frequently, cultural norms prevent men and women from using the same toilets. Other times, women are not given the opportunity to make decisions for their households or communities. The process of achieving Open Defecation Free (ODF) status is complicated by social norms but has ultimately proven successful thanks to its reliance on "natural leaders" coming to the forefront of their communities and spurring social change. The following three types of leaders inspired their communities to lead healthy and hygienic lives:

A religious leader as a natural leader

In the neighborhood of Firou of Nassou Village, the village's chief was actively against the building of latrines due to cultural norms separating men and women. PAPHyR's initial triggering sessions did not prove effective. A predominantly Muslim community, Firou achieving ODF status finally became a reality once the community's religious leader motivated the community. "If Islam attaches importance to nature, its preservation and its harmony with humanity, and PAPHyR says that hygiene is important at the community and individual levels, there are responsibilities for us to take on," he said in an interview with PAPHyR after a follow-up session. "Certainly, planning issues are community matters. But public hygiene is first and foremost a matter of personal hygiene," he continued. After this support became known, the community mobilized, including the village chief who built his own latrines. Firou became ODF in less than a month after the leader's support.

A women's group to beautify their community

Women in the hamlet of Jerusalem served, as a group, as the mobilizers of their community's sanitation movement. The PAPHyR facilitator for this community, in an effort to boost morale after the area's first set of latrines had washed away in the rainy season, formed a group for local women in order to empower them to take responsibility for their surroundings. The group, "Ife Dun," translating to "Love is a Good Thing," would sweep, clean and weed any unsanitary areas of the community, creating a more beautiful neighborhood. In turn, these women became the natural leaders in a movement to have a hygienic community.

This movement motivated Jerusalem's men to understand the importance of keeping the neighborhood clean. Not wanting their families to travel long distances to go to the bathroom, they worked together to develop latrines that are adapted to the nature of the local soil so they would not erode, building over 20 latrines in total. At the hamlet's ODF celebration ceremony, women from Ife Dun wore t-shirts as a symbol of pride for their community's efforts.

A concerned citizen

For the small village of Sinasso, the initial triggering session for behavioral change was not very successful. A sanitation committee within the village had been formed, but shortly disbanded after initial intervention. Three months after initial contact, PAPHyR revisited the site and met Daniel Hinnou, who decided that he would restart the committee on his own, starting first with building his own latrine. He understood the importance of ending open defecation for the health and safety of his community.

"Before, our community stank everywhere," Hinnou explained. "We were all going to the plantations to use the bathroom with the risk of being bitten by reptiles or injuring ourselves," he said, also explaining that diarrheal diseases and cholera were common in the village. Thanks to Hinnou's efforts to recreate the sanitation committee, Sinasso has made amazing progress. "The change is remarkable, today all households have access to a latrine, and those who do not yet use others'. We are aware now that this is for our own good and we will continue on this momentum."

Daniel Hinnou with his latrine in the village of Sinasso.

T-Shirt worn by women of Jerusalem village.

Men of Firou village meeting to discuss santiation activities in their area.

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