Community Heroes Leading the Way to an Open Defecation Free Pakistan
By Gloria Lihemo
For women living in the mountainous desert that characterizes Pakistan’s Balochistan province (south west of the country), the list of daily tasks is long. Walking lengthy distances to fetch water, cultivating the fields in sweltering heat, conducting household chores while still caring for their children. It’s no wonder hygiene and sanitation is not their number one priority.
Sanitation statistics paint a grim picture:
25 million people defecate in the open in Pakistan, a practice that is culturally entrenched in many rural areas, where only half of the people have adequate sanitation facilities. Killa Saifulla, a district with a population of 249,000 people, about 180km from Balochistan’s capital Quetta, is one such example, a year ago almost half of its population had no access to a toilet. “It was a big problem here because people were doing their business outside. Many people had neither toilets nor bathrooms!” Says Nadia Ghafar, a 21- year old student at a vocational training centre, from Killi Sarqhar village in the district. “Even the few people who had toilets didn’t use them, they kept them nice and clean so only guests could use them,” she adds.
Open defecation was widely practiced in Nadia’s village, as a result, water and sanitation-related illnesses were common. “Children were constantly suffering from diseases like typhoid, diarrhea, and malaria,” she recalls. The situation in Nadia’s village is sadly a reflection of the dire state Pakistan’s children find themselves in. About 110 children die every day from diarrhea in the country, which can be easily prevented by improving sanitation.
UNCEF and its partners have been supporting the Balochistan government in its drive to end open defection in the province by working with communities to construct and use toilets. “Safe sanitation not only reduces illness, death, and healthcare costs, but it also increases people’s productivity and school attendance,” according to Dr. Muhammad Masud Aslam, a water and sanitation specialist working for UNICEF in Balochistan.
Nadia volunteered to join a women’s village sanitation committee to educate her community about the consequences of harmful hygiene practices. Dividing her time between studies and her community work, “I go from house to house talking to women about the importance of having toilets, and how to keep them clean,” she says. “In the beginning not everyone was convinced that the diseases were related to poor hygiene. But a few started building toilets, and with time the rest followed.”
Nadia is responsible for 80 households which she visits at least three times a month. “I sometimes have to go back again and again because sometimes people are not home. Others are not easy to convince because a majority of the people in my village are not educated,” she adds. However, none of these challenges was enough to break her resolve, a year down the line, Nadia’s village was recently certified open defecation free (ODF) by local authorities. “We are armed with knowledge now. If you walk around, you will see that everyone has built a latrine,” she says buzzing with excitement. “We used to think it costs a lot of money but we learnt that even little money was enough to construct a good latrine.”
Nadia and her fellow community activists are not alone in their quest to end open defecation. At nearby Kili Ali Khan Muslim School, children have joined the cause and formed a water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) club. M. Raz a 14- year-old energetic boy and President of the 20-member club explains the recent transformation at his school.
“There were no washrooms or water in the school before. We went outside when we needed to use the toilet,” he says.
UNICEF, through its partner Water, Environment, and Sanitation Society (WESS) constructed latrines equipped with handwashing and drinking water facilities at the school. “We are responsible for hygiene in the school,” he says of the WASH club activities. “We divide roles so that some students are responsible for cleaning classes, others toilets, and others the school grounds. We also teach other students how to properly wash their hands with soap,” he says. The WASH club generates funds through monthly contributions of 5 PKRs (about USD 1 cent) from all the students in the school. The money goes into activities including buying soap for the group handwashing station.
Haji Bismillah, president of the parents teachers school management committee explains how the children are promoting the messages they have learnt to others in the community. “One child came to me and was teaching me how to wash my hands properly. This is really wonderful. When one is in good health then they are able to learn well too,” he says. Gul Sema, the school’s head teacher says the new facilities have improved the learning environment especially for girls. “We were forced to send girls home when they were menstruating because we did not have the facilities to cater for them. Now we have menstrual hygiene kits in the school for girls.”
While Balochistan is largely marred by stories of poverty, insecurity, underdevelopment, and economic neglect, it is nonetheless stories of young heroes like Nadia and the children in the WASH clubs that are a testament of its people’s courage, resilience, and determination.
Youth activists in Killa Saifulla district are playing a crucial role in contributing to the overall development of their communities. In conjunction with community leaders who make up the village sanitation committees, they are mobilizing their communities to pool funds to assist poor households to build latrines. The success of the village sanitation committees has gone well beyond improving sanitation to working with the provincial Public Health Engineering Department to construct a water supply scheme as well as rehabilitate sewage systems in the district.
Between 2015 and 2016, with support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) and the IKEA Foundation, UNICEF ensured that more than 145,000 people in 182 villages in Balochistan are living in open defecation free environments, thereby improving their sanitation. The timing of the assistance to these communities is impeccable. The global sanitation sustainable development goal promises to leave no-one behind, by calling upon governments to ensure adequate and equitable access to sanitation for everyone, especially the most poor by 2030. Community based initiatives such as these offer glimmers of hope that this ambitious target might actually be met. As we commemorate this year’s World Toilet Day let us celebrate the heroes going an extra mile to improve the sanitation and health of their communities.