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Engaging women, adolescent girls, the elderly, the disabled and sanitation workers around South Asia's leading sanitation and hygiene conference
“My name is Chandan and I am the leader of a group of sanitation workers in Bangladesh. I clean toilets for a very poorly daily wage. We also do not get any safety equipment. Without gloves, masks or shoes, it is difficult to segregate the waste. My hands smell foul even if I wash them with soap. When we go to a tea stall, we are turned away. We are not allowed to use the toilets we clean and have to defecate in the open or use a public toilet. I feel the municipality should invest in new technology for cleaning septic tanks and pits.”
Chandan was one of the key voices at the 6th South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN-VI) in January, which brought together ministers and sector experts to speed up the region’s progress on sanitation, hygiene and equity. Chandan was among several SACOSAN-VI participants representing individuals and groups in the region that are rarely heard when it comes to sanitation and hygiene needs and services.
South Asia has committed to eliminating open defecation by 2020 and achieving universal sanitation by 2030. Recognizing the importance of marginalized groups and communities to achieve those goals, previous SACOSANs have made various commitments to ensure a more inclusive approach.
Commitment X of the Kathmandu Declaration, signed at SACOSAN-V, pledged to support “significant direct participation of children, adolescents, women, the elderly and people with disabilities … to bring their voices clearly into SACOSAN-VI and systematically thereafter.” The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), in partnership with the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA), have responded directly to this commitment by facilitating the participation of these marginalized groups prior to and during SACOSAN-VI.
Voices of the voiceless
In the months preceding the conference, 55 consultations with more than 2,700 people took place across eight countries in the South Asia region. The consultations were jointly conceptualized, facilitated, analyzed and summarized by WSSCC, FANSA and partners across South Asia. These partners included approximately 70 local organizations consisting of local governments, community-based organizations, NGOs, local FANSA chapters, activist networks and academia.
The consultations engaged adolescent girls, women and men, youth and the elderly, transgender people, sanitation workers, waste pickers, and disabled people of different age groups and from rural, urban slum and tribal settings. Those consulted were often, for the first time, being asked what their constraints are, what they need, how they cope and how they would design water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services differently to enable universal access and use. Senior government officials across the region attended several of the consultations, listening to the concerns, engaging in dialogue and offering their support.
The results of the consultations with these groups – their stories, demands and aspirations – are captured in the report: ‘Leave No One Behind: Voices of Women, Adolescent Girls, Elderly, Persons with Disabilities and Sanitation Workforce’.
At SACOSAN-VI, WSSCC and FANSA facilitated a session where they launched the report and engaged with representatives from the marginalized groups. Seven individuals, representing the consulted groups, shared their stories, concerns and aspirations.
Laxmi Devkota, a deaf woman from Nepal, said:
“Deaf people, in particular, face a challenge because they cannot hear or express themselves when they want to go to the toilet or when they are menstruating. I have to depend on others for carrying out my daily household activities … I feel that governments must ensure the right to health and accessibility to infrastructure for all people with disabilities.”
Joya Sikder, a transgender person from Bangladesh, said:
“Transgenders face a lot of discrimination because of their sexual identities. Many of us live in slums with few WASH facilities because either we have been rejected by our families and cannot afford rentals in better areas, or the landlords are not willing to rent their flats to transgenders. Access to public toilets is also a challenge because if we go to the men’s toilets we are often sexually harassed and if we use the women’s toilet, the women get scared and abuse [us] … I feel it is time the government understood our needs and helped us lead a life of dignity by ensuring facilities for us and sensitizing people on our issues.”
The session was chaired by Rauff Hakeem, Sri Lanka’s Minister of City Planning and Water Supply. In addition, Prem Lata Singh, a Member of the Legislative Assembly in India and ministers and government officials from Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bhutan responded to the concerns expressed by the speakers.
For WSSCC and FANSA, the consultations, the report, and the session at SACOSAN-VI are important catalysts for ensuring the voices of the voiceless are heard.
“Creating an opportunity for their direct participation and ensuring that their voices and messages are being listened to is a first step to their inclusion in future regional political commitments, strategies and plans,” says WSSCC’s Archana Patkar.
The WSSCC-FANSA report includes several recommendations for those designing, planning and providing sanitation and hygiene practices. They include listening to the user; facilitating smaller, more frequent cross-regional platforms for participation and voice; building capacity to respect diversity, to listen and to learn; and building information, public opinion and new media partnerships.
In addition, commitments 3, 6 and 9 in the Dhaka Declaration, signed at SACOSAN-VI, reflect the demands made by representatives of marginalized groups during the consultation process.
Used to help drive the regional consultations and subsequent activities, ‘Leave no one behind’ continues to serve as a fitting slogan for the movement to better serve marginalized and unserved groups. Download the ‘Leave no one behind’ posters here.