Ending open defecation for better health in communities

©UNICEF Philippines/2016/Red Santos

In March 2013, the coastal village of Caridad in Eastern Samar, Philippines, was declared open defecation-free. With all the residents now using a proper toilet, the children of Caridad could grow up in a healthier environment, with lower risk of getting deadly diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. Open defecation remains a serious issue in the Philippines, where almost 7 million people defecate in the open — the third-highest total in the Asia Pacific region.

“We would just bury our feces so that the dogs would not scrape it. It was embarrassing, but we thought it was alright.”

“It took us more than a year to be 100 per cent [open defecation-free],” said barangay (village) captain Jessica Rojero. With support from the provincial health office, she met residents to discuss the sanitary conditions in their community and convinced them to build their own toilets.

“Getting the buy-in of longtime residents was the most difficult part. They told me that no one has ever died yet just because they didn’t have a toilet,” Jessica said. With a vast expanse of farmland and coastline, the residents of Caridad thought they would not run out of places where they could defecate.

This thinking and practice was passed on to children in the community. “We would just bury our feces so that the dogs would not scrape it. It was embarrassing, but we thought it was alright,” said 12-year-old Gieah Pagayanan.

Barangay captain Jessica Rojero points to a spot that used to be a makeshift toilet. The homeowner built a latrine pit and had the flooring cemented. When typhoon Yolanda destroyed the toilet walls, the homeowner constructed a new one after receiving a toilet bowl from UNICEF. ©UNICEF Philippines/2016/Red Santos

Because of the residents’ efforts to improve sanitation conditions in their village, Caridad became a model town for good sanitation practices. Leaders from neighboring villages would visit to get tips on how to convince their residents to build and maintain their own toilets.

“And then super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) took it away in one day,” said Jessica.

The typhoon damaged and destroyed the toilets of almost half of the households in Caridad. For residents hungry and displaced, rebuilding toilets would not be a priority. “I knew that people would easily go back to the old practice of open defecation if sanitation would not be part of the community’s rehabilitation efforts,” Jessica said.

Building back better

As part of its typhoon Haiyan emergency response, UNICEF provided hygiene supplies and toilet repair kits in the most-affected communities. Working with partners, UNICEF also conducted hygiene promotion sessions and assisted families who were most financially incapable of rebuilding their toilets. The municipal and provincial government complemented these efforts by allocating higher budgets for sanitation.

As relief and rehabilitation operations were underway, Jessica made sure that all households in Caridad also received help to rebuild their toilets. “We prioritized households with the most children. We should ensure the kids will keep on practicing proper sanitation,” she said.

“Children are at the heart of what we do. They carry the positive hygiene and sanitation behaviors they have learned home, creating positive change within their families and the wider community.”
Jeanita Quilbio (in photo)’s husband could not rebuild the toilet because of his health condition. In the spirit of volunteerism, their neighbors helped the family to complete their toilet. ©UNICEF Philippines/2016/Red Santos

As part of a long-term strategy to improve sanitation in typhoon-affected areas like Caridad, UNICEF worked with the Department of Health to implement the Phased Approach to Total Sanitation. Using Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) to show the effects of open defecation on people’s health and wellbeing encourages communities to work on sustainable solutions for them to achieve Zero Open Defecation status and to continue finding ways to upgrade their facilities.

At the village school, pupils were taught not only how to use a toilet and keep it clean, but also how to wash their hands properly

By participating in CLTS activities, children also become agents of change in their communities. “Children are at the heart of what we do,” said Louise Maule, chief of UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program in the Philippines. “They carry the positive hygiene and sanitation behaviors they have learned home, creating positive change within their families and the wider community.”

Victorina Sabulao never fails to sweep her front yard each afternoon. She says getting every household to build their own toilets is not a challenge. Cleanliness is, after all, a force of habit among every resident. ©UNICEF Philippines/2016/Red Santos

Renewed pride

With Jessica’s leadership, Caridad was not only able to rebuild their toilets, but also strengthen their commitment to proper sanitation. Residents continue to work together to keep their village clean and maintain a healthy environment, especially for children in their community.

Even animals don’t defecate in the open anymore in this village — local officials provided a leash for every pet dog and hog raisers were mandated to hike septic tanks.

Caridad was one of winners of the Department of Health’s National Search for Barangays with Best Sanitation Practice in 2016. Their commitment has earned the respect of other communities and inspired others to also improve sanitation practices in their villages.

“Everyone now sees photos of our clean surroundings all over social media. Even I would be surprised at how beautiful our village is in photos because to us, it has become an everyday sight,” said Jeanita Quilbio, a resident of Caridad.

Cleanliness has become a new habit — an essential routine in the daily lives of the people of Caridad who have risen from a stormy setback and never looked back.

By Rupert Francis Mangilit

To learn more about UNICEF’s work in the Philippines, visit www.unicef.ph.

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