In communities that do not have access to improved sanitation facilities, whereby waste is hygienically separated from contact, building these amenities is important for preventing disease and in turn maintaining livelihoods and keeping children in school.
But in addition to carrying out construction, any successful toilet project must involve the community at every stage to ensure the facilities are used and maintained and that healthy hygiene practices continue in the long term.
Research has demonstrated clear links between community participation and the sustainability of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) development projects. Therefore, Raleigh projects always involve different sectors of the community, including women, young people, village leaders and district officials, in decision making and project implementation.
One WASH project that concluded recently in Mugudeni, Kilombero, saw Raleigh volunteers work hard to build relationships with parents and teachers to improve menstrual hygiene management (MHM) education in the classroom and at home.
Raleigh Tanzania worked in Mugudeni earlier this year, building a new school toilet with disabled toilets and an MHM room, which provides girls with privacy during menstruation and a place to dispose of sanitary products. After post evaluation of the project, Raleigh Tanzania decided to return to the village to further instil the SWASH (WASH in schools) education and practices and construct a teacher’s toilet block.
On returning to the village and meeting with the schoolchildren, it became clear that although the school lessons and SWASH after-school youth club were continuing from the last Raleigh project, because the subject wasn’t talked about at home, there was lots of misinformation being spread among the children surrounding MHM issues.
It was decided that in order to improve education and prevent the spread of rumours surrounding menstruation – which ranged from family members dying if the topic was discussed, to concerns about witchcraft – broadening the age range of those taught about MHM, and getting parents more onboard with discussing these topics, was crucial. ‘We can work with the children for a year, but if the parents aren’t on board, the behaviour from the classroom doesn’t continue at home,’ said Emile Willmott, a WASH volunteer who worked in Mugudeni.
Typically, MHM isn’t talked about openly among Tanzanian families, so it can be difficult to change life-long habits and break traditions, especially in small communities.
Working with the teachers in the school, the volunteers held several meetings with the parents, gently highlighting the consequences of not talking about menstruation.
‘We simply informed them of the things their children had been saying,’ said Emile. ‘The parents were very shocked – I don’t think they fully appreciated how little their children knew. The parents were all very engaged and seemed very on board – we didn’t have to force them to listen to us.’
The volunteers also arranged events alongside people in the village – such as football matches and ‘community action days’ involving games, plays and performances – to include them in the project and build relationships in a non-confrontational setting.
Emile commented that the approach the volunteers took to overcome the challenge identified at the beginning was effective: ‘There is no way you can create a sustainable environment using forceful methods. Attempting to impose new knowledge without considering the existing knowledge will not work and will just lead to resentment in the community,’ he said.
‘We needed to act as a guiding presence that directs people into a position where they want – and know how – to help themselves, and their children, over a long period of time. You are preparing for when you’re not going to be there, rather than just focusing on what happens while you are,’ said Emile. ‘You need to create an environment where you’re not needed anymore. Making sure that the motivation remains is the most difficult part of the whole project but also one of the more important,’ Emile commented.
At the opening ceremony for the new toilet block, members of the school SWASH club were presented with special badges – sewn by women in the village – and cheered on by village members. According to Jane Attard, volunteer manager for the Mugudeni WASH project, the moment reflected the increased support of the community for talking and learning about MHM issues.
Words by Jessica Rowbury (Communications officer)
Photographs by Thalia Aboutaleb