Sanitation workers are some of the most marginalised and at-risk people in Cambodia. Within their communities, there is judgement over the type of work they do, with many labelling and viewing the work as ‘disgusting’. The work is not reliable or consistent, and occurs within a confined and unhygienic environment. They are forced to work in conditions that endanger their health and often don’t have the knowledge or equipment required to protect them from the risks of their work.
WaterAid Cambodia set out to solve these four challenges:
1. How can we support sanitation workers to get their voices and demands heard?
2. How can we get local authorities to recognise and respect sanitation workers in the city?
3. How can we support sanitation workers to secure a fair and predictable income?
4. How can we support sanitation workers to establish professional and profit-making businesses?
WaterAid Cambodia’s innovation project, “In my own words – sanitation workers telling their own stories”, focused on sanitation workers in Battambang province. The innovation worked directly with the sanitation workers to empower them to produce and tell their own stories through photos, videos, and painting. The project provided the sanitation workers with a chance to learn new skills and opened a dialogue with city officials.
Throughout the innovation, the team worked closely with the Department of Public Work and Transport (DPWT), art organisations, professional photographers, WASH organisations, waste management organisations, and youth groups to support sanitation workers to tell their story, raise awareness of their challenges, and gain resources to improve their situation.
During the implementation, the project delivered the following activities:
- Introduced the project to the Provincial Department of Public Work and Transport (DPWT) and the BTB provincial governor to gain support for project implementation.
- Trained sanitation workers on basic WASH, health and safety, and the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
- Drafted Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) guidelines for improving drainage systems and mitigating risks for sanitation workers in these environments.
- Trained sanitation workers on storytelling, photography, videography, and painting to assist them in producing and telling their own stories in creative ways.
- Worked with young artists to produce four animated videos to tell the sanitation workers’ stories in a different format.
- Organised and hosted a photo exhibition event with key attendees from government, NGOs, schools, and the general public to provide a platform for sanitation workers to voice their concerns on WASH and safety.
With the skills developed throughout this project, the sanitation workers were able to increase their confidence and express concerns around their working conditions to local authorities and the general public. They gained critical knowledge on basic WASH, including hand hygiene and how to use PPE properly while working in hazardous environments. They developed skills in photography, videography, and storytelling which enhanced their capacity speak about their plight.
The government assigned a focal point for communication and provided a letter of support for project, highlighting its changed perceptions and willingness to support the project. The project lead to a trusted relationship with DWPT, who supported, acknowledged, and recognised the work. They encouraged WaterAid Cambodia to continue tackling this issue into the future.
What We Have Learnt
Moving forward, the innovation intends to achieve a sustainable and lasting impact for sanitation workers. WaterAid Cambodia hopes for better social services support, recognition of the value of essential sanitation work by authorities and public, and an improved attitude toward sanitation workers. The team are expecting to continue developing standard operation procedures/guidelines with relevant ministries to mitigate the risks of sanitation work and improve health and safety conditions in these environments.
Similarly, they will continue disseminating the videos, photo stories, slideshows, animations, and paintings developed throughout the project to demonstrate the importance of sanitation workers for keeping communities and cities clean, safe and hygienic. These will be promoted to the public, especially urban communities, in order to reduce stigma and discrimination against sanitation workers.
Key challenges & learnings
1. Working with sanitation workers was a new experience for the project team, who found they had to adapt to their different ways of working. For example, it was difficult to find a time for all the workers to attend meetings, as they all had responsibilities for domestic tasks and care work at home. The team learnt to listen and empathise with their challenges and lifestyles.
2. Introducing the unconventional concept of this project to local authorities proved to be challenging. There was a fear that photography and storytelling by sanitation workers could spread negative images throughout their departments, and they emphasised the need for training with clear guidance to ensure the stories produced by sanitation workers would have a positive impact
3. The project team often had to travel to Battambang province to support training sessions and meetings, but long distances and road construction made this particularly difficult. It was important for the team to physically attend these events, as online participation had led to misunderstandings in the past.
4. Some sanitation workers had to miss training sessions because they could not afford to take the day off work.
5. All project materials including photos, stories, painting, and videos needed to be approved by DPWT. There were many amendments that had to be made in order to meet government protocol before publishing at the photo exhibition event.
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