Nov 19, 2014
By: Carlie Congdon, Associate Program Director
Do you enjoy talking about going to the bathroom? Probably not. It is one of the subjects that has the ability to make people from the widest array of cultures feel awkward and uncomfortable. Working in rural health development in Vanuatu, I spent countless hours discussing the topic, both in terms of the physical bathroom structure as well as what happens inside of it, and I realized that talking about it is just as natural as the action itself. And the conversation is essential to making improvements in this area.
In a country where people are ashamed to even be seen walking into a toilet, I anticipated facing great resistance in discussing the need for improvements amongst the local “small house”, which for most was hardly a broken concrete slab over a hole. Motivated by the open defecation that I witnessed in the village, sometimes right outside my front door, I decided to tackle the issue anyway. The first step to doing so however was to get the community to ask me for it, which meant starting the conversation that led to the construction of 16 improved toilets almost a year later.
Being willing to discuss the various complexities, cultural stigma and details of using the toilet was essential to creating a solution that best fit not only the needs but the desires of the population. Toilets can be built and educational workshops can be run. But behavior change is the key to allowing those mechanisms to effectively improve community health, and this is difficult to achieve without this level of communication.
To address the issue of poor sanitation, various campaigns have been launched. Not a single one is going to provide the solution for every country, district or village. But today, on World Toilet Day, the puns, hashtags, and singing toilet videos prove that the shame and embarrassment of talking toilets is giving way to increased awareness, fundraising, and advocacy. Improvements in this area will reverberate throughout health sectors that directly benefit from improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene, including NTDs.
I look forward to a day when my friends from Vanuatu to Brooklyn all feel comfortable talking toilets. Let the discussions continue beyond World Toilet Day.