Overcoming Social Barriers: A Journey by Women WASH Platform

Ashish Barua explains how the all female ‘Women WASH Platform’ has broken down social barriers to encourage better practice in Bangladesh.

“We install latrines inside the heads of people” Rina Begum, member of Surjodoy Community Based Organisation (CBO) from Bakshigonj upazilla in the Jamalpur district, almost bombed into the discussion. “You install it inside peoples’ heads?” The audience burst out into laughter instantly. “It means,” Rina continued, “the community itself will install latrines, only if we can make them sensitized to do it; reach them here,” she points to her head with both hands. She was explaining what the WWP (Women WASH Platform) is. This is a group of nine to eleven women from the same community leading Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) activities at the village level. “We do nothing for others, we do it for our own welfare; the community does theirs. We only facilitate from the side”, her face lights up while answering another point, “What do you do for the community?”

The group of WWP members were telling their success stories, sharing challenges and ways to overcome them. Oxfam has been piloting this approach in its Resilient WASH program with a view to reduce existing gender inequalities in WASH and to encourage gender sensitive management, planning, prioritization and investment through developing women’s leadership.

We knew the entry point; the mother or wife in a family. We started with them. How was the journey then? As Rina explained, “At the very outset, we were surprised that the group was only for women, we were worried about the community’s reaction, how people would accept us, as women, in leading WASH activities”. The group was then trained in Community Led Total Sanitation and WASH promotion.

WWP starts with a WASH situation analysis. “In some cases, the community was laughing at us while we were taking them for a walk and facilitating them to make a social map. But, most of them started blinking at us as soon as they calculated how much they would defecate in the open and where it would go. Slowly, we also started feeling confident to guide and lead the community” said Hosne Ara Begum, WWP member from Sandweep Upazilla, Chittagong.

The community is then sensitized and encouraged to develop action plans to block disease transmission routes and ensure access to safe sanitation, water and hygiene. In fact, the real challenges appear because male members are the key decision makers in most families. 

We knew the entry point; the mother or wife in a family. We started with them.

How did they overcome it? “We knew the entry point; the mother or wife in a family, who deserve enough power to motivate others in the household. We started with them. On the other side, we took initiatives in our home. We got positivity from our family members as we demonstrated our skills on WASH. And, this is how the women gradually got involved in planning and decision making” stated Hosne Ara.

WWP members join different training and orientation, and organise campaign and awareness-raising sessions to ensure a positive change within community. Through organising and facilitating these events and activities, the WWP, steadily takes a positive and lead role in society. And the individuals involved become known by neighbours and other corners of the society as well. “The key motivation is that the community listens to us. Their actions and guidance encourage us. We have a good acceptance not only to the community, but also to the local government institute (LGI), which enables us to step ahead.”, said Zianur Begum from Nikli Upazilla.

Through leveraging resources from LGI and other sources, WWP has made 67 communities open-defecation free so far. They are present in different committees, including sanitation taskforces, disaster management committees both at ward and union level. Sometimes, they also join sub-district and district level events and take space and scope to speak out needs and demands of the community.

What’s more, this is not the end of the story. They are stepping out day by day. “It is our pleasure that we have been rewarded nationally” Zianur is proud of WWP, as one of the best practices in Bangladesh. It indicates a potential for the approach to be replicated all over the country by the government itself. “For this, we had the opportunity to join a national workshop and raised our voices to national planner and decision makers.” Said Zianur Begum from Kishoregonj district, where most of the women are still socially and religiously expected not to come outside home and in front of men.

Ashish Barua

Resilient WASH Coordinator


Header photo: Meeting of WWP members in Sandweep, Chittagong. Credit: Oxfam

This post was originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice on October 3rd, 2016