Water, sanitation, and hygiene: how small changes can make big differences

Children wash their hands

Montha is a 23-year-old highland farmer in a remote and mountainous area of northern Laos. There are more than 120 families in her community, which has limited infrastructure and no power supply. Plan International first started working with the community in 2013, with the implementation of an education program to help children stay in school.

Plan works with girls and women around the world who are disproportionately affected by the burden of carrying water. Here, in her own words, Montha talks about how Plan’s water, sanitation and hygiene programming has impacted her life.

“After a year, Plan started a project to install a water system and improve the sanitation in our village. They introduced the [project] and asked for our support. Every family was happy to be involved in this kind of activity. Everyone was invited to a village meeting to identify our basic needs. We decided to prioritize the water system to replace the broken one and then to build new household latrines.

“Each family in the village sent a representative to help with the work, which included constructing a water tank, pipe laying and contributing local materials such as wood, sand and gravel, which we could collect nearby. The construction process took five months to complete, and now all of us have access to clean and safe water all year round.

“Due to poverty, only a few people in the village are able to access higher education and get a paid job. I completed high school in the middle of 2015, but couldn’t continue my education. I felt hopeless after dropping out of school and couldn’t see a future for myself.

“Then Plan International came looking for a volunteer to set up the Community-led Total Sanitation and Water Management Committees in our village. These committees are responsible for managing the system, maintaining water flow and motivating people to build their own household latrines. After learning about the work, I immediately decided to be a part of this activity as it was a good opportunity for me to gain more experience, help others and give back to my village.

“After the completion of the water supply system construction in March 2016, we were trained in looking after the water management and sanitation systems. All the families in our village were encouraged to build their own latrines and keep their environment clean. I didn’t learn much at school about personal hygiene and sanitation, but I did learn a lot from Plan staff.

“The other committee members and I have learned about good sanitation and hygiene practices and transferred this knowledge to our neighbors. The villagers started to build their own toilets and boil water to drink. Before, there were only two families who owned their own household latrines, even though we have had a water system since 2005 installed by the government. This was because of the lack of information, which brought poor sanitation and personal hygiene. The knowledge delivered by Plan International has made changes in our village, step-by-step, and we are leaving our poor sanitation and bad personal hygiene behind.

“Almost everyone here is illiterate, and people don’t understand technical terms for sanitation or personal hygiene. We lived in an unclean environment and had animals wandering around the village. We practiced open defecation for decades. But, using simple techniques that everyone could do, like playing a game or drawing a map of our open defecation sites, the people began to understand how poor sanitation and hygiene practices can impact on their health.

“The villagers now have a new attitude and have changed their behavior. They have learned how to stay healthy with good food and avoid diseases, especially for children. With the aim of keeping children and women safe, plays began to be performed in the village. The shows focused on personal hygiene for children, pregnancy and newborn baby care.

“This simple approach has had a big impact on the villagers and since the plays began to be performed, more people are visiting the doctors and giving birth at our health care center. This small step can bring positive changes to children’s health and possibly help them [escape] poverty.

“I know that human resources are everything and we can’t break out of poverty if our people are not healthy. Plan International came to our village with two main activities that support us in terms of health and education. We can support children’s education when we are healthy and children are more able to pay attention to their education when they are healthy. Health and education can’t be separated and they should be interlinked programs as they support each other.

“Water system and health information sessions have reached more than 560 villagers, including 220 children. The children now have more time for their education because fetching water from the river is no longer their responsibility.

“It is quite sad to look back on how our village used to be before Plan International’s assistance. Now things are very different—children have more opportunities to stay in school thanks to scholarships, and all villagers are able to access the improved water system. We also hope to officially put an end to open defecation in the future.

“We are so happy to be a part of our village’s development. People are excited with each new project because each one can make a big difference to our children’s lives.”

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