On the Frontlines of Change: WASH Volunteers
The haor or backswamp areas in the northeast of Bangladesh are a sight in the rainy season. When I had last visited the sub-district of Tahirpur in Sunamganj district in winter, we had travelled by motorcycle over rugged potholed roads and long stretches of sand. By the time I visited this August, much of Tahirpur had transformed into vast watery plains, and the unique beauty and challenges of this wetland ecosystem were in full display.
I had come to Tahirpur to see the WASH in Health project being implemented by WaterAid Bangladesh, in partnership with the NGO Efforts for Rural Advancement (ERA) funded by HSBC. In this isolated region, community clinics are the vital frontline of healthcare services. We are working with local government and communities across 18 community clinics in this upazila to revitalise clinic management, upgrade WASH facilities, and support surrounding communities to access safe water, improved sanitation and proper hygiene.
The haor communities are at the heart of this initiative, and a key role is being played by local volunteers. In each of the seven unions of the upazila, a group of 9-10 community volunteers are working alongside the project team to motivate households to install improved WASH facilities and adopt good hygiene practices. These young, energetic volunteers make household visits, conduct sessions on menstrual hygiene management, and organise mothers’ group meetings. Each volunteer receives a small honourarium and an additional amount when they perform exceptionally well, such as motivating multiple households to construct or renovate a latrine, or start using handwashing devices. This is one of the first project WaterAid Bangladesh has tried this approach in, replacing some of the responsibilities typically carried out by the partner organisation with members from target communities.
I had the opportunity to meet with a group of nine volunteers from Uttar Sreepur union. Having travelled close to two hours by boat to reach the remote islet the volunteers had gathered at, what was immediately striking was the vivacity and enthusiasm of these women despite the challenges they face in their work every day.
Most of the families in the area are poor, relying on income from crops grown during the dry season to see them through the lean months. Land is so scarce that there is barely space to build a proper house, and people and animals often live in the same room with not even a partition between them. Cramped clusters of households are separated by long distances that take hours to cross by boat in the rainy season or motorcycle in the dry season. Under these extreme circumstances, motivating people to invest in WASH is a formidable task.
“All we have is our words”, says Ambia Khatun. She describes how people were unwilling to give time initially, and they faced criticism for not offering any payment or other incentives for their meetings. “We have to request women coming to the mother’s group sessions for a mat to sit on, and have been told off so many times for not even being able to provide even this one thing!”. But these volunteers have matured into strong advocates over time, and they smile as they describe how they approach people unwilling to listen. Azima Begum explains, “You have to go back many times, you can’t give up. We talk about their children’s health, the cost of getting help when someone falls ill.” They share their own experiences with their neighbours, demonstrating how they practice proper sanitation and hygiene, and how their own families have been benefited.
Jaya Rani tells me about how her father encouraged her to apply for the community volunteer role, but passed away before she got the position. With her first salary, Jaya Rani built a sanitary latrine in her own house in memory of her father. Like Jaya, other volunteers speak of building latrines in their homes as the first crucial step, inspiring those around them to make the same investment. Now, Bithi Rani tells me about the changes her work has brought in her village, where there used to be just a handful of proper latrines for nearly 250 households, and open defecation was common.
But along with improvements in WASH conditions in these areas, perhaps the most striking aspect of the project is the change evident in the volunteers’ own lives. Each volunteer faces the same struggle as the households they work with, and they are intimately familiar with the hardships of life in the haor.
Ruby Begum was unemployed after passing her intermediate exams, and her family could not afford further education for her. She says, “I can continue my education because of what I earn from my work. I even support my younger sister’s studies from my income, and I bought her a sewing machine so she can start earning a bit too. We are poor and my parents were considering marrying her off even though she was a child – I could spare my parents from committing the sin of child marriage because of my work.”
Bithi Rani comes from a family of five siblings. Her father had to borrow from different people just to complete the formalities for her intermediate examination, and attending college was a distant dream. Her father told her she would have to get married, but Bithi decided to apply for the community volunteer position, and now supports her college education and her brother’s school expenses from her earnings.
When Nasima Akhtar was in college, her father died and her older brother separated from the family – there was no way she could complete her degree. With the money she earned as a community volunteer, Nasima completed her degree and is now doing her Master’s.
Each story is as powerful as the next, and I come away from my trip inspired by the strength and dignity that shine through the stories of these women. The same strength imbues their work in bringing water, sanitation and hygiene to one of the most remote corners of the country, against severe odds. This project’s impact is not only being felt in communities and healthcare facilities, but in the lives of each of these volunteers who represent local potential, local ownership and local championing of WASH.