Spreading messages to curb disease
Sitting around on dry leaf mats, the children watch as nine-year-olds Bithi and Rony put on a play demonstrate the bad effects of defecating in the open. The topic makes the children laugh and keeps them engaged as the young actors perform scenes using simple animal characters; Bhulu the naughty dog and Pushi the obedient cat.
When the play is over Mosammet Nasrin Khatun, a local community hygiene promoter begins to explain the serious message behind the jovial performance. Eight year Popy chimes in, “Bhulu defecates in the open and pollutes our neighbourhood. We don’t like Bhulu because he is very disobedient as he ignores practicing hygiene,” she says.
A few yards away, a similar session is taking place, this time for adolescents. One of the participants, 14-year-old Rina is reminding everyone to wash their hands after going to the toilet. The session’s moderator Mosammat Miliara Khatun takes over and begins discussing the need for proper hygiene during menstruation. She draws on a guide book designed to educate and promote healthy hygiene practices.
Many in the Chapainawabganj district are poor and depend on agriculture for a living. Illiteracy rates are high and proper hygiene practices are very rare among the population in the region. As the lesson rolls on villagers gather to listen to the adolescents spread the message about the importance of maintaining personal hygiene and keeping their local community clean.
The informal sessions are part of the UNICEF supported Sanitation, Hygiene Education and Water Supply in Bangladesh project or SHEWA-B. The project – supported by UK AID - aims to promote proper hygiene practices across Bangladesh as well as supply as many communities as possible with safe drinking water and proper sanitation. Supported by UNICEF and its partner organizations, the project is designed to reach 30 million people in rural villages and urban slums.
Roqib says the change is due - in part - to the village’s adolescents who have become aware of safe hygiene procedures through the information sessions and who have then passed on the information to their elders.
Abdul Latif, a local vegetable wholesaler, says over time many have benefitted from the monthly informal gatherings. “Many of the families have been buying their own sets of latrines to comply with local community’s demand for maintaining a clean environment,” he says.
Some families, who cannot afford to buy a sanitary latrine, are given them free by the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) - the government agency responsible for providing water and sanitation services. Other’s have part of the cost subsidized or are encouraged by their local community to save money.
“We encourage people no matter how poor they are to realize the importance of having a sanitary latrine in their home. If the poor cannot afford we encourage them to take advantage of easy installments to repay,” said Toufiqul Islam, who is DPHE assistant engineer in Shibganj.
To ensure those who need it most benefit from the program, a nine member community group meets once a month to discuss plans for latrine distribution. Housewife Rahima Begum’s family and four other families were recently given a set of ring-slab latrines. Such latrines are shared by families who are identified by the local community group as being the poorest and most in need.