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Community-led approach to sanitation and hygiene saves lives in Mali

© UNICEF video
A woman reaches for fresh water to clean her new cement latrine, built as part of a Community Led Total Sanitation project.

By Guy Degen

BAMAKO, Mali, 11 October 2010 – Defecating in the open is still a common practice throughout rural regions of Mali, and in many villages, latrines are constructed only for the elderly or disabled.

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Traditionally, open defecation in villages was encouraged, because excreta could be used as fertilizer for crops. This practice, however, greatly contributes to poor hygiene and sanitation conditions, and diarrhea-related illnesses – a major cause of death among children under the age of five in Mali.

To encourage the construction and proper use of hygienic latrines, hundreds of villages are being carefully guided through a UNICEF- and government-supported programme known as Community Led Total Sanitation, or CLTS.

Personal hygiene and social taboos

To break down the barriers of discussing open defecation and personal hygiene in public, traditional storytellers, known as Griot, play an important role in helping community sanitation specialists work with villagers.

During a CLTS ‘triggering session,’ village residents gather and everyone shares some food or water. Then something unexpected happens. To exemplify the danger of open defecation, the facilitators place fresh human faeces – found that day in the village – near the food and water they’d been sharing. The flies become instantly attracted and begin moving between the faeces, food and water.

The method is deliberately provocative. People immediately see the perils of open defecation and realize they may be ingesting food contaminated by their own faeces. Afterwards, the facilitators work with the villagers to identifying and map problem areas. The residents also calculates the volume of human excreta produced and their health care expenses resulting from diarrhoeal illnesses.

With support from the CLTS specialists, the village then designs an action plan to tackle open defecation and improve community sanitation and health conditions.

© UNICEF video
Mothers and children listen during a 'triggering session' run by CLTS facilitators in a village near Kita, Mali.

Low-cost solutions, local resources

CLTS is based on the principle of collective change. Just hours after participating in a CLTS triggering session, the village of Bereninba – located near the town of Kita in western Mali – is alive with activity as people enthusiastically dig their new latrines.

“If I don't do this, our sanitation will never be guaranteed,” says one father working with his son to construct a latrine. “The children and adults defecate in the open, and this leads to lack of sanitation. Flies land on faeces, transferring diseases to our food. That's why I'm digging to stop it. We have no other means other than to take a shovel and dig like this.”

It’s important to note that the CLTS approach is not about providing subsidies. Instead, people make use of low-cost solutions and their own local resources.

A community decision

The goal for every village is to be certified ‘Open Defecation Free.’ This means every family in the village must have access to a covered latrine to reduce flies, and must have water, soap or ash for handwashing. These basic measures are affordable, even for the poorest ones families. Plans for building latrines presented at community workshops help reinforce residents’ commitment to making changes in their villages and following good hygiene practices.

UNICEF and its partners are confident they can continue extending the reach of the CLTS programme in Mali. The goal for 2010 is to help 300 villages reach Open Defecation Free status, benefiting 200,000 people.

“We have a strategy that is results-orientated,” says UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Manager Nicolas Osbert. “It goes beyond the construction of latrines. It improves public health by reducing the threat of fecal contamination.”

Ultimately, it is a community decision to change hygiene behaviour. By focusing on collective action, the CLTS approach is playing a key role in Mali's National Water and Sanitation Programme – and thereby helping the country move toward achievement of its Millennium Development Goal targets for child survival and environmental sustainability by 2015.




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