Philippines: Stopping the scourge of open defecation

November 19, 2014

  • 31% of rural communities in the Philippines still practice open defecation.
  • The World Bank is working with the government through a campaign to use hygienic toilets.
  • Since the campaign in 2013, 4 pilot provinces in the country have been declared areas with zero open defecation.

MALUNGON, SARANGANI – In the town of Malungon, Sarangani, dancing, singing, and parlor games gave the event the atmosphere of a fiesta (local festival). But it was an “activation program” for a campaign on an issue that many would rather talk about in hushed tones, a problem most are in denial: open defecation.

If there’s one thing that the event successfully conveyed, it was to discourage people from relieving themselves in the bushes. The Zero Open Defecation (ZOD) campaign, with the slogan “Unli-Asenso Pag May Inidoro” (which roughly translated means ‘there is unlimited progress when one has a hygienic toilet’), is off to a good start.

The goal is to eliminate the unhealthy practice by 2016. But the town mayor Reynaldo Constantino would much rather put a stop to it by the end of 2014.

He said that as of latest count, there are still 640 families without sanitary toilets in the town’s barangays (villages) out of an estimated 19,000 families, a figure that has gone down considerably from the more than 1,000 families who did not own toilets when the campaign started in 2013.

Three of their far-flung villages have already achieved ZOD status. “We will be totally free of this problem by the end of December 2014,” said the mayor.

He is accelerating the campaign because, he said, open defecation is a serious health, social and economic issue.

“With this unhygienic practice, many in the community get sick. A sick child will have to skip school. Their parents will have to be absent from work, thus affecting the family’s livelihood,” he said.

It’s a challenge that’s affecting millions of households nationwide. The latest numbers from Unicef show that about 31% of rural communities still practice open defecation or have unhygienic toilets. There are still areas in these communities where access to sanitary toilets is difficult, with up to 7 out of 10 persons defecating directly under the sun or stars.

In response to this challenge, the Department of Health, with support from the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program and the United Nation Children’s Fund, launched a campaign to convince households to acquire and use hygienic toilets to improve their quality of life and their communities.

It targeted towns and provinces within regions with the highest poverty levels and where many people do not have sanitary toilets, including the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, Masbate, Negros Occidental, Negros Oriental, and Sarangani.

Since 2013, the campaign has been gathering households and using “shock, shame, and disgust” to raise awareness on the negative effects of open defecation, especially among children, and create demand for hygienic toilet facilities.

For instance, participants of these village meetings perform “defecation mapping” where houses without toilets are identified using a map of the village. They also conduct “transect walks” where participants take a tour of areas where open defecation is rampant and identify those responsible for the feces found in the open.

Positive reinforcement also plays an important role: ownership of sanitary toilet facilities is being framed as a status symbol.

In Mindanao, the campaign employs the “star power” of local celebrities like Jinkee Pacquiao, vice governor and the wife of Filipino boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, to get the message across.

“As a sister to all the women here in the province, I always encourage them to have sanitary toilets. It’s very important for the health of the family and of the community,” stressed the vice governor during the launch.

The challenge is enormous but at this stage, the health department has already identified several models of success from which other towns could learn from: Gumaca, Buenavista and Quezon in Quezon Province; Calatrava in Negros Occidental; Bindoy and La Libertad in Negros Oriental; and Malungon, Glan and Alabel in Sarangani.

These pilot areas are getting fast results because they did three things:

  • They enacted laws to compel households to own sanitary toilets;
  • They mobilized volunteers and government staff to raise awareness and compel households to change their behavior; and
  • They trained masons and carpenters, and provided raw materials to help households construct sanitary toilets.

For the families that recently got new clean toilet facilities, the benefits are immediate.

“Now that we have a sanitary toilet, everything feels clean. We feel healthier. We feel good about ourselves,” said Virginia Payas, resident of Barangay Tokawal, Alabel Sarangani.

Video: Mobilizing Communities to Own Toilets