Tuesday, April 26, 2011
W.A.S.H. Keeps Communities Clean
DHAKA, Apr 23, 2011, One sunny afternoon, 19-year-old Sufia Aktar presides over a courtyard gathering of housewives discussing the use of safe water, a hygienic environment, and personal cleanliness. It is the last of such gatherings for Sufia, who will soon leave, knowing it was "mission accomplished."
Sufia is a full-time programme assistant for WASH, short for "water, sanitation and hygiene," a campaign to get people to adopt hygienic practices, ensure their access to safe drinking water, and bring their homes under sanitation coverage.
Over a period of five years since the programme started in May 2006, Sufia has been attending six meetings every day, six days a week. She has covered 33,000 cluster meetings for housewives, 600 for adolescents and 300 for children.
"Everyone shows tremendous enthusiasm as they experience the benefits of the discussions," said Sufia, sitting next to a clay home in Kholapara village in Kaliganj sub-district, about 50 kilometres north of Bangladesh capital Dhaka.
WASH was designed by the world’s biggest non-government organisation, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, referred to simply as Brac. It comes to an end this month, achieving close to 98 percent coverage in sanitary latrine and access to safe drinking water in the 150 sub-districts or upazilas selected for inclusion in the programme.
In Kaliganj, the programme succeeded in altering people’s sanitation and hygiene behaviour. Before WASH, people got drinking water from contaminated sources like ponds and lakes. There were those who even defecated in the bushes, creating an unsanitary environment that bred diseases.
WASH managed to change that by employing what is considered Brac’s unique method: it trained community leaders of various ages to get people to listen, involving and convincing the community on the wisdom of regular hygiene practices.
"The idea is a bottom-up approach. No one, not even from Brac or the government imposes or forces anyone to obey anything. The changes in improvement in the village environment, better sanitation and higher drinking water coverage come as a result of better sense of understanding," said Mohammed Shafiuddin Mirza, a local mosque imam and also one of the key members of the Village Wash Committee (VWC) in Kaliganj.
WASH worked with different segments of the population, such as those Sufia has been meeting with. The groups are known as clusters, with different categories catering to different age groups. There are "male clusters" for heads of households, "female clusters" for housewives, and separate clusters for adolescent boys and girls as well as children.
Meanwhile, a group of 11 men and women form one VWC for every 50 to 300 households, and ensure improvement in coverage of sanitation and access to safe drinking water by recommending hardware and loan support where needed.
Each VWC is represented by all classes of people from the community - teachers, religious leaders, local NGO representatives, school girls, young women, and even very poor individuals who have never before been recognised as potential leaders.
"Before we begin working in any selected areas we first conduct a survey with the help of local government. Such a joint initiative enables us to understand the real needs of the community," said Aminul Islam, WASH upazila manager in Kaliganj.
WASH leaders encouraged people to invest their money in hardware that would translate to cleaner environments. Before WASH, less than 37 percent of households in Kaliganj used sealed and properly installed latrines. After five years, that number has grown to 93 percent, translated to more than 50,000 households.
Before WASH, only 55 percent of Kaliganj was covered by safe and clean water. Now, that number has risen to 87 percent, with tube wells installed throughout the Kaliganj. There is roughly one tubewell for every three or four families.
"When we visit door to door to inspect progress after certain number of cluster meetings, house owners themselves often show appreciation for having changed their lifestyle," said Shahabuddin Ahmed, chairman of local government council in Kaliganj.
"Many poor families would have never invested in buying a latrine set but since their better sense of understanding, people now realise the need for a healthy environment," he added.
The programme targeted a population living below the poverty line and already, some 38.5 million such poor and hardcore poor have benefitted from this programme. WASH is considered the single largest sanitation programme among the developing nations.
"WASH programme’s biggest strength is its mobilisation strategy where we act as catalyst while the real beneficiaries play vital roles," said Subash Barai, one of thousands of WASH programme organisers who worked relentlessly to achieve the programme’s targets.
Due to low literacy in villages, it is still very hard to convince people why they should invest in healthy living. Traditionally, rural people still believe that it is the government’s responsibility to provide latrines and tube wells for free.
It is the VWC leaders who help break the barriers, convincing the community of the need for healthy lifestyle and environment.
Affluent members of society are expected to improve access to drinking water and sanitation on their own. For the majority of the poor and hardcore poor, WASH coordinates to offer interest-free loans of 1000 taka or 13.5 dollars to each poor family capable of repaying loans.
So far, 157,824 poor families have received loans worth 1.798 million dollars. A total of 3,350,748 traditional latrine sets have been installed throughout the 150 sub-districts. Individual households have installed some 24,500 deep and shallow tubewells while 1,622 water points have been constructed from five major community-based piped water supply systems.
After this month, Brac will be handing over the WASH programme to the local government, with local NGOs continuing the work that Sufia and other WASH advocates have started.
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