Timor-Leste declared the first open defecation-free municipality

Timor-Leste declared the first open defecation-free municipality

UNICEF Timor-Leste
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin
23 July 2018

In the courtyard of her home a young mother cradles her baby, carefully angling her arms to protect the infant from the already-hot morning sun. Born in late December last year, the child is one of the newest residents of Railaco, a semi-rural town in the foothills of Timor-Leste’s coffee-growing heartland of Ermera municipality.

He’ll likely never realise it, but the child will live his entire life in a district free from open defecation – a significant public health issue in Timor-Leste’s line of fire, and perhaps the single greatest threat to his health and safety. 

Ermera was declared the first municipality (district) in Timor-Leste to be free from open defecation, a practise where people go to fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water and other open spaces to defecate, instead of using a toilet. About one in three people in rural Timor-Leste continue to practise open defecation, which is a dangerous, dirty and often embarrassing experience. Its elimination is a UNICEF global priority. 


First-ever toilet for Miguel and his family

20-year-old Miguel de Fatima sits in the front of his new house, on a veranda dotted with brightly coloured potted plants. His nieces, nephews and cousins, nine in all, wind around his ankles and play giggling hiding games between the pots as he describes the house, which he built with his brothers and which includes the property’s first-ever toilet. 

“Before we just had a manual toilet, where we would make a hole, and the kids would go out to the bush,” he says. “They would sometimes get sick, and it would be difficult. They’d have diarrhoea, fever and coughing, and sometimes couldn’t go to school. So we feel more secure with this toilet, and it’s better for our health.”  

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin
Olalia Ello da Costa (7), left, and Givania Soares Monteiro (7) nieces of Miguel de Fatima have fun posing next to the toilet. Most of their young life they had to be defecating in the forest at the back of their house.

Now, thanks to the new toilets, and the commitment of their community, their environment has become much more hygienic.

UNICEF Timor-Leste has been supporting the country’s Ministry of Health since 2010 to implement a community-led total sanitation programme, which encourages local ownership and leadership of hygiene initiatives. 

“When we come, and build the toilets for them, they don’t use them,” explains Pedro Canisio da C. Amaral, the Ministry of Health’s Director for Public Health. “When they are built locally, people can see the results.”

Miguel confirms that he and his brothers built their toilet themselves, using their own materials, and it’s clear from the way the men have carefully decorated their house that they’re proud of the place.

Thousands of people playing their part

Miguel’s new house is one of 21,949 households across 52 villages in Ermera municipality that has its own toilet. These houses have contributed to official verification of open defecation-free status from the sub-village, village, sub-district, municipal and national levels. The several steps of verification started with self-verification, followed by verification by the Municipality WASH team and the National team.

After briefly being granted the status at the end of 2017, the accreditation was withdrawn after a couple of toilets in remote Hatolia sub-district were washed away in heavy downpours. Local leaders acted quickly, with staff from both rural health posts and municipal government travelling the rocky road to Hautolia to ensure the swift and safe re-construction of the toilets, which restored the municipality’s accreditation just weeks later.

Strong local leadership key to success

“Municipality leadership is crucial,” confirms Ermera municipality’s President, Jose Martinho do Santos Soares, a gentle, softly-spoken man.

While addressing the crowd at the official declaration of Ermera’s open defecation-free status, he emphasised that the responsibility for the programme’s success sits with him and other residents of Ermera, “This programme can run because of the mentality of the community,” he told the crowd. You are the agents of change.”

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/dmonemnasi
Representatives from 13 municipalities signed a declaration to make Timor-Leste Open Defecation Free by 2020.

The listening crowd included representatives from each of Timor-Leste’s 13 municipalities, who signed a declaration demonstrating their commitment to an open defecation-free Timor-Leste by 2020.

Ministry of Health Vice Minister Luis Lobato implored these leaders to take Ermera’s lessons back to their home municpalities “We must continue this progress and put it into practise,” he told the crowd, emphasising the importance of the community-led total sanitation programme. “Ermera municipality has set an example for other municipalities.”

Valerie Taton, UNICEF Representative, also addressed the crowd, congratulating Ermera municipality on its success and reiterating the need for continuing efforts. 

“Open defecation-free status is not enough,” she said. “It needs to be sustainable. Local leaders play a key role here and we call on you today to dedicate action and resources.” 

Healthy children for a better future

Continuing Ermera municipality’s open defecation-free status is critical to promote good hygiene and sanitation required to safeguard Ermera’s children. 

Respiratory disease and diarrhoea are the leading causes of death in children under five years old in Timor-Leste, and poor water, sanitation and hygiene practises result in child illness. There is global evidence that poor sanitation affects the nutrition status of a child and family members.

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin
UNICEF Timor-Leste country representative Valérie Taton greets Fatima dos Santos (28) and her two-month-old baby. Fatima has five children. The toilet in her house is bright and clean, and keeps her family healthy.

Only one of Miguel’s nieces is brave enough to speak. She says she’s nine years old and in grade four at the local school, pointing vaguely up the rocky path as if the school were right behind her. She’s gone most of her young life defecating in the forest at the back of her house and has sometimes missed school days because of illnesses you’d think preventable, like diarrhoea. 

Now, thanks to the new toilet, and the commitment of her community to maintaining its open defecation-free status, she’ll never have to worry about this again. 

UNICEF Timor-Leste

Video on the 2nd Phase Implementation of Saúde na Família (Health in Family) in Timor-Leste