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Community-led sanitation in Bangladesh

Villagers in Bangladesh worked together to change the habit of open defecation. Their success has inspired many others around the world.

Identity and cultural diversity, Social justice and human rights, Sustainable futures

Mosmoil villagers stand outside a sanitary latrine.

Mosmoil villagers built a sanitary latrine and worked together to stop open defecation. Photo by Shafiul Azam Ahmed for AusAID

Open defecation

Traditionally, in Bangladeshi villages when people wanted to go to the toilet they went behind bushes, in fields, ponds or on riversides. It was considered acceptable for men to defecate in the open anytime, but women could only relieve themselves in the early morning or after dark without embarrassment. Children could go anywhere as their wastes were considered harmless. This open defecation meant humans, animals and insects transferred millions of viruses, bacteria and parasites to people’s food and water, causing illness and death.

Community-led Total Sanitation (CLTS)

Since 2000, Village Education Resource Centre and Water Aid Bangladesh have been helping to make big changes in toileting habits through a community-led total sanitation program. Facilitators would walk around the village with community members, introducing them to the health and environmental dangers of fields being used as toilets. They visited regular toileting sites and broke down social taboos by talking openly about faeces, or ‘pooh’. There was usually plenty of laughter. Together, they drew diagrams showing that after rain faeces could flow from open sites into ponds, canals and wells, and eventually onto cooking utensils during washing, as well as onto food itself through flies. With shame and disgust the community members realised that they had probably been regularly eating their own – and other people’s – faeces. 

After one such introduction, the villagers of Mosmoil in northern Bangladesh quickly decided to adopt 100% sanitation. It was time, they said, to end the age-old practice of open defecation. They learned how to make a latrine which confined excreta and prevented faeces contaminating surrounding areas. Within a short time every household in the village had such a sanitary latrine. Villagers pledged to always use their latrines instead of going to the toilet in open areas, and to wash their hands straight afterwards.

The villagers soon noticed that these health measures saved them time and money because they didn’t get sick. Clean fields meant growing rice and collecting fuel were more enjoyable tasks and children had more space to play. Women were pleased to have the convenience and safety of being able to go to the toilet whenever they needed to.

At school, children learned about washing hands and the need for all people to use the latrines. They took action with a public-shaming campaign. They kept watch, and used flags naming the adults who were still going to the toilet in public areas to embarrass them and encourage them to change their toileting habits.

Benefits to the community

The benefits of being known as a ‘100% open defecation free area’ village attracted positive attention and neighbouring villages quickly followed the practice. It took only six months for neighbouring villages to also become open defecation free areas. Soon officials from other parts of Bangladesh and other countries such as India, Pakistan and Indonesia visited to learn about the rapid improvements. The villagers felt surprised but proud.

Over time the people have dug new pits or adopted improved models when their latrines were full; further evidence of the sustainability of the program and commitment to preserving a sanitary environment. Taking control of their lives has led to other changes. Some people are now able to earn a living from making and selling low-cost latrine components, such as concrete rings for lining pits and plastic pipes.

Achieving goals

The government of Bangladesh has financially supported the spread of the program and promoted sanitation awareness. Sanitation coverage in Bangladesh has increased from 33% of households to over 70% and those who practise open defecation are criticised.

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Mosmoil villagers built a sanitary latrine and worked together to stop open defecation.
Photo by Shafiul Azam Ahmed for AusAID
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Mosmoil villagers built a sanitary latrine and worked together to stop open defecation. Photo by Shafiul Azam Ahmed for AusAID