Women leading the way on water and sanitation management

Date: September 15, 2010
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Mgona, Malawi: It is mid-morning and the workday is underway. People are moving in all directions, going about their daily chores. But it is mostly women who move the fastest, many of them carrying water through the impoverished and overcrowded streets.

In Mgona, on the outskirts of Lilongwe, most men have ignored the many problems faced by the community, chief amongst them issues of waterborne disease.

Waterborne diseases are common in this country of 13.1 million people and a 2008 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that 12,000 Malawian children under the age of five die every year due to diarrhoea and other associated diseases.

Mgona, with 36,000 people, has historically been affected by the problem, but a recently-formed water-users association spearheaded by local women has taken the initiative to advise the denizens of this tiny community on good water and sanitation management.

Lucy Kaombe, a mother of seven, leads the Committee and hopes that one day Mgona will be free of waterborne diseases.

“We advise households to keep their surroundings clean by sweeping in order to stop waterborne diseases,” says Kaombe, who was inspired to take up water management in her community after seeing how common waterborne diseases were becoming in the area. “The committee is working hard to advise households to use modern sky-loo toilets.”

The sky-loo is a step-up toilet that minimises the possibility of groundwater contamination and diverts urine through a series of pipes to an area where it is soaked up by a nitrate-absorbing tree.

Kaombe’s committee started its work in 2007 and conducts weekly visits to households.

The result is that three years later waterborne diseases have mostly been eradicated from Mgone, unlike in other parts of the country.

“Waterborne diseases have gone down, and for the past three years cholera and diarrhoea have been significantly reduced,” she says.

Because men in the community mostly view issues of water management as women’s work, Kaombe’s group is dominated by local women, although there are now three men on her committee.

According to WaterAid, a UK-based water and sanitation organisation, 80% of African countries are currently off-track for meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) sanitation target while simple and cost-effective programmes that deliver sanitation and hygiene could easily be implemented, also reducing other issues such as pneumonia.

A report by the organisation states: “Simply using a safe toilet can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by 40%, while a toilet together with safe water and hygiene can reduce the disease by 90%.”

Every day 2,000 African children die from diarrhoea and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 28% of under-five deaths are attributable to poor sanitation and unsafe water.

Another Mgona resident and committee member, Falesi Jeffrey, thinks there are other benefits to undertaking water and sanitation management. “Another advantage of the toilets is that we can harvest manure from solidified human waste,” she says.

Esther Sakala lost a grandchild to diarrhoea in 1995. She is a big supporter of Kaombe’s work to bring proper sanitation to Mgona.

“I would like to urge government to invest more resources in these toilets, so we can reduce deaths,” she says.

Whether or not it does, through the work of community leaders like Kaombe, it appears the importance of proper hygiene is catching on. The Malawi Interfaith AIDS Association (MIAA) with support from UNICEF has recently developed a manual to guide religious leaders to promote hand-washing in various congregations in the country.

The manual states: “It is hoped through this initiative that religious leaders will be incorporating social sanitation messages in their regular religious meetings and gatherings. Our prayer is that a snowball effect will take place quickly and effectively, resulting in everyone in Malawi whether in Government or homesteads practically and passionately implementing the agenda on social sanitation.”

Father Patrick Semphere observes that religious leaders have an obligation to their people to ensure social sanitation issues are known.

“By the virtue of their calling, religious leaders have to assist the people in their physical and spiritual well-being,” he notes.

Dingaan Mithi is programme officer for Journalists Association Against AIDS in Malawi. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.



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