Hygiene promoters teach safe sanitation practices in Bangladesh
By Arifa S. Sharmin
HATITILA, Bangladesh, 31 July 2008 – At the community development centre in Hatitila, a remote village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, Athoi Marma, 19, teaches songs about safe hygiene practices to 20 pre-school children. The songs are in Marma, an indigenous language spoken by only around 150,000 people in Bangladesh.
Athoi is one of 25 women from this hard-to-reach region who have received training from UNICEF to work as community hygiene promoters. The 15-day training seminar equipped her with tips on how to work with the community to promote safer hygiene practices.
Now, Athoi has become an agent of change for her village.
“We used to drink stream water and utilize unsafe water for cooking,” she explains. “If we had known that unsafe water was harmful for our health – that this was causing diarrhoea and respiratory disease – we would not be drinking it.”
Changing old habits
Once her training was completed, Athoi called a meeting of community members with the help of the Karbari – the traditional chief of a Marma community.
“The first meeting was a challenging one,” she recalls. “Some people did not want to believe me. Others were asking for free sanitary latrines from the government. It took some time to convince them that they themselves could change the situation if they stopped practicing open defecation.”
This initial meeting did not discourage Athoi, however. Instead, she decided it was important to visit various households, one by one, to discuss the issues in greater depth.
“At first, we did not give credit to what Athoi was saying,” acknowledges a 50-year-old villager, Halacipru. “But she started visiting our houses, talking with our wives, mothers and sisters – convincing them that basic hygiene practices can make a difference. Now we do not drink unsafe water anymore. We collect water from the tube wells.”
Little agents of change
After two months of household visits, Athoi’s hard work paid off. She convinced the entire community to develop a plan of action, and many community members are now helping her to combat open defecation and promote basic hygiene practices.
Athoi’s pre-school pupils have also become little agents of change in their families. Pusi, one of the pupils, “is very vigilant about cleaning her hands and drinking safe water,” reports her mother. “And she always tells us to do so, as well!”
Poor sanitation contributes to respiratory diseases and diarrhoea – the leading cause of child mortality. Improved hygiene conditions will save lives and help Bangladesh achieve the Millennium Development Goals on child survival and environmental sustainability.
Improving children’s lives
Athoi's work is part of a large national project that aims to reach 30 million people over the next four years and is among the most intensive sanitation, hygiene and water improvement programmes ever attempted in a developing country.
In order to reach this goal, more than 1,000 community hygiene promoters like Athoi are working within their own villages to promote better hygiene practices and the importance of safe sanitation and water facilities. They are supported through the Sanitation, Hygiene Education and Water Supply Bangladesh project, which is funded by the UK Department for International Development and supported by UNICEF.
“My responsibility is to change the habits of our community, starting with these young children who are not yet in school,” says Athoi. “We have to teach children and young people about the importance of safe hygiene practices, as they are open to new ideas and changes. It is more difficult for adults to modify their habits, especially when these are deeply rooted in a person’s culture.”