Understanding hygeineRural Nepalis have to be made to understand the benefits of using toilets over open defecation for wider adoption and acceptance
The practice of open defecation is still prevalent in many parts of the country despite efforts to raise awareness about health and sanitation practices and the creation of open defecation free (ODF) areas. The government has not been able to meet the target of achieving 100 percent ODF status, and at the same time, there are many challenges involved in the task. According to the 2016 report of the National WASH Coordination Committee, 38 of the country’s 75 districts remain to be declared as ODF areas; but the figure could have decreased as we approach the end of the National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan 2011-17. The problem, however, lies not in the delay in meeting the target but the way the project is being implemented.
The government has built public and private toilets in many villages and municipalities across the country with the help of donor agencies and non-governmental organisations, but it has yet to make people aware of the importance of healthy sanitation practices. Most of the public toilets are in a sorry state—some have broken doors, others are missing taps, some have broken sinks and some lack a water supply. One of the most common problems is the stink that pervades the public toilets and nearby areas. And apart from the lack of water, lack of knowledge among the people about using the available resources properly is another hitch.
For those who have never seen a toilet before, the facility is not only alien, the concept too is equally strange. During my stay in different villages in both the Eastern and Western regions of Nepal, I came across many people who did not have toilets and but also came across many who did have them in their houses. Most of the toilets had been built less than five to six years ago with the aid of external agents and government and non-governmental organisations working for the improvement of sanitation and health. People in the Tarai who did not have toilets in their houses practiced open defecation in the fields and grasslands. When asked whether there were toilets around, they would casually say no. If anyone in the village had a toilet, they would point in the direction of the house.
People who had recently constructed toilets, whether in the Tarai or in the hills, would rattle off their importance the way NGOs had taught them. It is similar to what we call ‘suga-ratai’ in Nepal. They say, “You should not defecate in open spaces because that will spread diseases and you should also wash your hands after going to the toilet.” However, this is limited to words and not seen in practice. The people have built toilets because it was made compulsory and because they were given money to build them, not because they understood their importance. I am not trying to belittle the efforts of those who have constructed toilets after understanding their need and importance on their own. What I am trying to say is that in order to ensure that the project is implemented properly, it is essential for the people at whom it is targeted to understand its importance and to convince them to use the facilities.
One way to do that would be by setting an example. Keeping the toilets in hospitals and private and public service offices clean could be a start. How will people know about proper maintenance of toilets if they only see stinking, dirty and messy toilets everywhere they go? After that comes regular monitoring of every toilet used by the public—both those in public stalls and in private hotels, restaurants, malls and shopping centres—by municipal and health offices to make sure that they are not violating any health and sanitation standards. This isn’t as difficult as it may sound, and also no additional department might be required since it falls under the work policy and responsibility of the Sanitation and Sewer Section of the Water Supply and Environment Division under the Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation. All that is needed is a little extra effort in monitoring and evaluating the sanitation condition in different places for which it can mobilise its local bodies.
In addition, open defecation should be completely stopped, and this has to be strictly implemented for passengers on long route vehicles too. As long as vehicles are allowed to stop in the jungle to allow the bus crew and passengers to relieve themselves in the open, the concept of an open defecation free Nepal may not be
completely accepted. One hurdle to banning vehicles from stopping in the jungle or open spaces for that purpose is the lack of public toilets on the highways. However, if we are to achieve the goal of an ODF Nepal, we need to start working on constructing toilets along the highways, especially in places where there are no establishments like petrol pumps, hotels or shops.
Finally, raising awareness is always useful and necessary because without understanding why one is doing something, it would be no different than ‘suga-ratai’. The only difference here would be doing something without understanding the reason instead of repeating words and sentences. Sanitation habits should be made a practice coming from awareness rather than through imitation.
Bhattarai is a Research Associate at the Social Science Baha