Building toilets to build dreams
How a WASH Champion in Lanao Del Sur helps children to be healthy so they can achieve their dreams
Gwen Manzanilla, a Rural Sanitary Inspector in the municipality of Wao for 11 years, gushes her excitement as her hometown gets close to being the first Zero Open Defecation (ZOD) declared municipality in the province of Lanao Del Sur.
“Our team is very happy and hopeful,” said Gwen. “My dream for Wao is for everyone, especially the children, to have access to clean and safe water and sanitation facilities. I hope children grow healthy so they can achieve their dreams.”
Having toilets and access to clean water in homes and communities are critical in mitigating possible public health risks. Open defecation is hazardous as contact with human waste can result in diseases such as hepatitis, polio, cholera, typhoid, diarrhea, and worm infestation. It is especially dangerous for children since diarrhea is the second largest cause of under-five mortality globally.
“We need to promote sanitation and achieving ZOD because it is an indication of the community’s changed behavior in terms of hygiene and sanitation, which is paramount in achieving good health,” said Rasul Abdullah, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Officer at UNICEF's Mindanao Field Office.
Of the 26 barangays in Wao, only two are left for verification. For Gwen and the WASH team of Lanao Del Sur, the hard work now seems to pay off. From walking for more than two hours against scorching heat and periodic rains just to reach the farthest barangays, it is rewarding to see the changes in the communities.
“At first it was difficult breaking the open defecation norms in some communities. Sometimes you will feel tired and frustrated going back and forth for the assessment. But when you see your teammates working hard regardless of the challenging situation, the barangay leaders and healthcare workers cooperating, and the Local Government Support is present, it gives me that extra motivation to keep going,” said Gwen.
Her team was at the momentum of having half of the municipality getting verified at the end of 2019 but the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in 2020 compelled Gwen’s team to stop their activities. Concerned about its impact, Gwen is still thankful for the barangay leaders and health workers who continuously coordinated with them and took an effort in trying to keep their community safe and clean.
Ensuring ZOD programs are achieved requires a big investment. It encompasses top and bottom-level interventions to bring support, especially to poor communities that are incapable of acquiring and constructing their own toilet and sanitation facilities.
Evelyn Mantos, a resident of Barangay Buot, was thankful when her family received a toilet from the Local Government Unit of Wao. Before, her family would need to go to the barangay so they can share the toilet with other families. It is sometimes hard for her five children when they need to prepare for school and for work. Now it is more comfortable for her family, and her younger children do not get sick as often since then.
"My dream for Wao is for everyone, especially the children, to have access to clean and safe water and sanitation facilities. I hope children grow healthy so they can achieve their dreams."
Evelyn’s daughter, Elesa Mae Mantos, 13, recalls pitching water from a nearby pump and waiting for her turn to use the toilet when getting ready for school. “I want to be a teacher someday because I want to help children how to read. My mama tells me I need to maintain cleanliness so I can be healthy and someday make my dreams come true.”
“It takes commitment to see changes in the community. We need to find and empower more WASH champions like Gwen who will advocate for children’s access to clean water, hygiene, and sanitation. Protection of children's rights requires a healthy environment and every child has the right to survive, grow, develop and reach their full potential,” said Rasul Abdullah.
Children, especially those coming from the most vulnerable and marginalized backgrounds, are highly exposed to all kinds of environmental harm, despite being the least responsible for it.
On World Toilet Day every November 19, UNICEF highlights the importance of putting every child’s best interest at the center of WASH initiatives. Working closely with the government down to community members to realize children’s right to a clean and healthy environment.