Women lead community to build toilets for every household

Meet the women of Luhox hamlet in Kabiufa village in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.

Fredrick Musoke
Waimale Takis standing between two children with some of the group’s pioneering women.
05 August 2020

Meet the women of Luhox hamlet in Kabiufa village in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea who led their community to stop open defecation in two months by building a toilet for every household.

Encouraged by the achievement, the women introduced several hygienic behaviors such as frequent hand washing, maintaining a clean environment and beatifying their homes which has put this hamlet of 32 households on a steady path towards total sanitation.

 “In March this year we assessed Luhox hamlet’s toilet status and found that majority of households shared toilets – in some cases 3 to 4 households were using one toilet. The few existing toilets were mainly dilapidated basic structures or simple open pits and open defecation was common,” says Elsie Gepeve, 43.

Gepeve is one of the two Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) volunteers working with UNICEF’s implementing partner, Touching the Untouchables (TTU), to mobilize the community to improve their sanitation.

 “We decided to act when we learnt from the mobilisers during community meetings that defecating in the open or in dilapidated toilet structures  posed serious  health risks to our community, including contaminating our water sources with pekpek (feces),” says Waimale Takis, a 70-year-old widow –  the Hamlet leader who led the pioneering group of 15 women, nine of whom are elderly widows.

A boy washing his hands using a tippy-tap at the hamlet’s public toilet.
A boy washing his hands using a tippy-tap at the hamlet’s public toilet.

“We women got together and got started as the men and young people were at first reluctant,” she adds.

The effort that ignited these women’s action, is part of the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) initiative intended to empower 800 communities to improve their sanitation and hygiene practices, including eradicating open defecation.  It is a part of the European Union co-funded EU-UNICEF Pilot Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Project that is under implementation in four PNG districts of Central Bougainville, Goroka, Hagen Central, and Nawaeb.

Pravin More, UNICEF WASH PNG Specialist, with experience of similar initiatives in India, explains the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach. “It is an innovative and effective way of mobilizing communities to eliminate open defecation. Communities are facilitated to conduct their own appraisal and analysis of open defecation (OD) and take their own action to become ODF (open defecation free). Families are provided appropriate information to build own toilets using locally available materials. The CLTS approach works without giving them subsidies of any kind,” says Pravin.

According to the 2019 Joint Monitoring Programme Report, only 15% of the population in PNG have access to improved sanitation facilities.  Poor sanitation is a leading cause of waterborne diseases including diarrhoea, a major killer for children under 5 years. Poor sanitation is also a major contributor to stunting or impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition and repeated infection. According to the  Papua New Guinea National Nutritional Policy 2016 – 2026,  nearly 4 out of 10 children in the country suffer from stunting  which  causes about 20% of all mortality of children under age 5 and leads to long term cognitive defects, poor performance in school or fewer years of completed schooling, and lower adult economic productivity.

“For a long time, I have been embarrassed for my home not having a toilet,” says Veno Napaiha, 80, one of two of the oldest women in the group. “I did not know where and how to start to get one.”

“But when the community mobilisers came here and taught us that it is important for every home to have a toilet and the women decided that we should build the toilets together and for everyone, I knew that I could now finally get one,” She says.

The women tackled the task cooperatively by dividing it into two phases – digging and construction. They dug two pits a day for each of the 32 households - one for a toilet and the other for solid waste disposal. To speed up the work, they would start at 8 am and end at 4 p.m.

The owner of the household where they all worked, was charged with preparing meals for all workers so that they would be able to save time instead of going back and forth for meals.

The women’s determination to put a new toilet in every home of the hamlet prompted the men and other members in their community to join the effort. Soon, they all started collecting building materials from the forest to construct roofs and frames for the toilets.

“In our culture, men traditionally do all the building,” says Jacob Gepeve, 46, one of the community members. “So, when we saw what the women had done in a very short time, we went with them to the forest to bring the building materials – bamboo, wood and grass for constructing the walls and roofs and worked together to complete the job.”

Betty Kaykay, a member of Luhox women’s group shows off her utensils’ rack in front of her house
Betty Kaykay, a member of Luhox women’s group shows off her utensils’ rack in front of her house

While making the toilets, the women also decided, with support from the community mobilisers, that they could do more to improve sanitation and hygiene in their homes and community. They constructed handwashing stations for each toilet, paved footpaths to the toilets with stones for easier and safer access, planted flowers around them for beautification and take pride in keeping them clean. Furthermore, the hamlet for the first time made a public toilet, which the women say is for use by outsiders passing through the community.

Luhox community members have also started to address environmental sanitation issues such waste management by digging and using garbage disposal pits for solid and liquid waste, constructing household racks for hygienically cleaning and drying household utensils and beautification of their homes with flowers.

On 05 June 2020, about two months after community mobilisers’ first visit to the hamlet, the community celebrated its open defecation-free status and was one of the five first hamlets in Kabiufu village that is made up of 20 hamlets to achieve this feat.  

Martin Moses, WASH Coordinator for Goroka District Development Administration, hailed the achievement of the women in Luhox hamlet as it demonstrated what was possible for the other pilot 200 communities in the Goroka district where similar efforts are under way to eradicate open defection.   Lessons learnt from this pilot will be used by the district leaders in addressing the problem in other communities.