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Shamima’s story: Bringing clean water and hygiene to a Bangladesh slum area

© UNICEF/2006/Chevigny
Shamima Shetu, 17, a young water activist from Bangladesh, displays her watercolour depicting right and wrong sanitation practices.

By Blue Chevigny

New York, USA, 11 April 2006 – Shamima Shetu, 17, goes door to door in her home community of Comilla, Bangladesh, armed with a set of simple instructions and a watercolour painting. The painting has two sides depicting two versions of the world – one where water is dirty and sanitation practices are unhealthy, the other where water is clean and community sanitation is very good.

Shamima and her friend Dolly Akter, 16, are playing an important role in cleaning up their slum neighbourhood through UNICEF’s Environmental Sanitation, Hygiene and Water Supply in Urban Slums and Fringes Project. As adolescent hygiene monitors, the girls visit 20 homes in their area, checking whether neighbours are drinking safe water, using hygienic toilets, washing their hands before eating and after defecation, and disposing of rubbish properly.

‘A good way and a bad way’

The original watercolour serves as a visual aid for what the girls are trying to teach. Shamima holds up the painting and explains.

“This is the bad situation,” she says, pointing to the right side of the page. “Some people here don’t have a fixed place for their garbage, so water and garbage are mixed. And the cows are drinking this dirty water, and the children are swimming in this water. And this is an unsanitary latrine, and this woman is washing her pot in the dirty river water.”

She then points to the left side of the page. “On this side it’s all clean,” she says. “They use hygienic latrines and this is water with soap to wash their hands. And this is a well, with clean drinking water. So we show that there is a good way and a bad way to live.”

© UNICEF/2006/Chevigny
Shamima Shetu and her friend Dolly Akter display the Bangladesh flag at the Children’s World Water Forum in Mexico City in March 2006.

Girls work together

An estimated 2,500 people live in the one-square-km slum district of Comilla, about 100 km from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. With such overcrowding, it is hard to see how people survive, let alone keep the area clean and healthy. Yet Shamima and her friends are making a difference. By monitoring and reinforcing simple hygienic behaviours, they are making the neighbourhood cleaner and its residents healthier.

“Before this programme I saw many unhygienic latrines,” recalls Shamima. “This was a great problem in my area. There were many waterborne diseases and water-related diseases. Now it is much more hygienic.”

The monitoring group has also given the girls the confidence to take on other social issues, as well as share their problems and work together on ways to overcome them. Before the project began, for example, some of the girls did not go to school because their families couldn’t pay the fees. “Now we collect some money and we help them with their homework,” says Shamima.

Children’s Forum presentation

Last month at the Children’s World Water Forum in Mexico City, Shamima presented details about the adolescent girls’ project in Comilla to other children who are also working on water and sanitation issues in some 30 countries. The young people then selected the best projects to share with adult decision-makers who were meeting on global water issues nearby. Shamima’s project was among the top 10 of the 55 projects represented.

Shamima says she is grateful for the new experiences provided by the Mexico City meeting, which was her first trip outside of Bangladesh. As a budding artist, she was keen to see a land other than her own. And she was happy to be able to show what she and Dolly, who also attended the conference, are accomplishing in their community.

“My family is very proud of me,” she says. “It’s a very good learning and growing experience for me."

Although she and her friends are young, Shamima sees their potential to affect change as limitless. “Now we are small, but when we grow up then we can teach our little brothers and sisters, the younger generation, to understand what is good and what is bad,” she says.

Claire Hajaj contributed to this story.




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