What does it take to raise healthy kids, free from life-threatening illnesses?
An entire village.
In the north-western region of Bokeo, Laos, villages sit perched on top of huge mountains, with sweeping views of lush jungle and deep valleys. When it rains, roads become unsafe to travel on. And the nearest town is a one-hour drive away. For many, the only way to fetch clean water is through natural supplies like local streams and and without proper toilets, many are left with no other option but to defecate in the open and in local water.
Although Laos has the most water resources of any Asian country per-capita, much of it is unsafe. As a result, diarrhea-related diseases are responsible for one-third of all under nutrition cases and one-tenth of deaths among children under the age of five. But village by village, progress is being made. It’s called ‘community-led total sanitation’, and it’s working.
Handwashing, toilets, clean water, and clean homes. This is total sanitation in Laos, and it requires every member of a village to get involved. Meet four community members doing their bit for total sanitation.
Nine-year-old Thongkhoun loves to wash his hands, and he learnt to do this at his school. As a member of a hygiene club established by Plan International in the Pha Oudom district of northern Laos, he is serious about hygiene. He taught his mother how to wash her hands thoroughly – a seven-step process that includes cleaning your palms, wrists and fingers. “If I saw someone with dirty hands who was about to eat food, I would say ‘Stop! It’s dirty. That’s full of disease. You have to wash your hands first or you’ll get sick.’” Thongkhoun the Handwashing Champion, we could all do with a lesson from you!
Can you remember the first time you saw a toilet? 22-year-old Noy does. “I felt confused, and shocked. I thought, where does it go?!” Noy’s neighbours built her toilet three years ago, with guidance from Plan International and now, Noy is no longer confused by her toilet. It has become her pride and joy, and the answer to so many of her community’s problems. “Before we had the toilet we had to go out in the open, sometimes at night. We’d be scared of the dogs and the dark.”
Now Noy has a safe, private and clean place to go, and the river near her house stays clean too. She also has a safe place to change and a clean place to clean herself when she has her period.
It’s rare to find a job that you love. But Sieng Yeud has. In his village, Sieng has been appointed by his community to fix and maintain the village’s water supply provided by Plan International. “I was selected by the community because they trust me,” he says. After learning plumbing skills on the job, he repairs leaks, busted pipes and installs new taps at families homes. It’s unusual to see a village in Laos, with so many easily accessible taps – but Sieng remembers what it was like before water supply was in abundance. “Water is life. Without water, we have no life.”
A visionary leader can transform everything. And Boun Mee, the village Chief, wanted change. Before him, people would complain of stomach pains and vomiting. So he’s worked with Plan International staff to change the behaviour of his community. As a result of his leadership, cows and pigs live in their own pen, and not underneath the house, homes have toilets and entire villages are washing their hands. Every week he gets on the loudspeaker and reminds people about the benefits of toilets. “Sickness is not acceptable,” he says. The best part? His village has been officially declared ‘open-defecation free’ by his local government. Congratulations, Boun Mee!
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