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NUWAKOT, Nepal – It was 15 years ago when 10 illuminated women in a Nepali village stood up to change behaviour of their neighbors and went on as the driving force to start promoting the importance of sanitation.
Sunita Gurung, a mother of three, is one of the founding members that formed a neighborhood group in the village of Pokharigaun, located at Kispang Rural Municipality of Nepal’s Nuwakot district.
She recalls 13 years of her married life she had lived at an open defecation community. “My mother-in-law would visit us and defecate right in front of our house,” said Sunita, acknowledging that the practice had been going on for generations in her village.
Sunita would clean up feces outside her house as an obedient and decent housewife but worries about her heath began to build up in her head.
“There were times I could not eat food after cleaning up,” says Sunita. Not many villagers knew the pathogens are transmitted from fecal matters to a human body, unaware of the cause of their constant sickness.
Her newborn baby was not able to escape the hazards of open defecation, either. The baby was often taken to hospital as the mother sought treatment for repeated infections.
The turning point for Sunita was marked by a visit to Trishuli, 16 kilometers from Pokharigaun. She saw and used toilets with running water for the very first time.
“Once I got used to the new way of life, it became very difficult to again go back to bushes and dispose menstrual clothes openly,” said Sunita.
The open defecation free life at Trishuli empowered her to act not only in her household but in the entire community to end open defecation.
“After that, for some months, my main job was to convince my husband to build a temporary toilet,” she recalls. “Later, he heeded to my constant reminder.”
Sunita did not stop there. She convinced her mother-in-law to sell off one of her buffalos for 13,000 Nepalese rupees, or US$114. The money was used to construct a pit latrine for her mother-in-law.
Sunita is not the only woman that had pushed for an open defecation free village. The neighborhood group, formed by 10 women 15 years ago, now comprises of 42 members, leading the drive to ensure that basic sanitation is accessible to all of the 54 Pokharigaun households.
Today, Kispang Rural Municipality, to which Sunita’s village belongs, enjoys 48 active women groups, but Sunita says the beginning of their sensitization campaigns was not easy because women were never invited for village meetings.
To make matters worse, women were never allowed to raise their concerns when men led some discussions. The women would be told to keep quiet and mind their own business.
“We wondered why this was not our business,” says Sunita, “the reason why our children were constantly falling sick was due to poor sanitation and open defecation. It was taking the toll on every member of our family and they still say it was not our business."
That’s why Sunita and other women kept attending every Village Development Committee-level meeting even if they were not invited. Sunita and other women had pressed on to raise awareness of sanitation and hygiene and, most importantly to make villagers realize that toilets are necessary because they protect communities from diseases.
The district of Nuwakot was declared open defecation free on 12 July 2018 with 100 percent coverage and 64.5 percent new toilets after the campaign was held from November 2017 to May 2018 by Government of Nepal with support from UN Habitat, an executing agency under the programme of WSSCC’s Global Sanitation Fund (GSF).
UN Habitat with its local partners, Renaissance Society Nepal and DECON Nepal, provided orientation to sensitize communities for safe disposal of excreta and adopt proper hygiene and sanitation behavior. The outcome of the interventions was that the programme encouraged communities to construct 706 new toilets on their own.
These women’s groups have now become a reckoning force as they aim to help villagers preserve an open defecation-free status. The women also help the elderly and the mentally disabled to use toilets.
The women groups have joined hands with local government and NGOs to create awareness on sanitation and hygiene through behavior change communications and have endorsed a workplan to execute it.
Communities that still have temporary toilets are encouraged to upgrade them to permanent ones, and individuals willing to upgrade their toilets receive either a loan or physical labor to support their efforts.
Maitrai Sharma, GSF Programme District Coordinator for UN Habitat, said that the GSF programme is supporting the government’s initiatives to execute and operationalize the total Sanitation Guideline in the GSF programmes working districts through sector coordination and capacity development.
The post-ODF intervention project is being carried out in 11 wards of two rural municipalities and one Nuwakot municipality, providing strategic help for moving towards total sanitation by June 2020.