Three children that look up to her for support are already a responsibility heavy enough for 44 year old widow Mercy Chisungu of Kajuni 2 village, Traditional Authority N’gabu, Chikhwawa district in Southern Malawi. Since the death of her husband in 2005, Mercy has had to rely on her tomato selling business and grow sorghum and cotton to generate income to keep hunger at bay.The work itself wears her down. Prohibitive prices of fertilizers and other chemicals only aggravate the situation as she cannot afford the inputs to produce high quality crops. Her efforts in the field and at the market therefore only beget miserable profits.

With such challenges inflicting so much pain on her, Mercy would wish there was no other additional hardship. Yet for years, she and her children have been helping assemble a time bomb for their community. They have been defecating in nearby bushes - in the open - creating a very fertile ground for sanitation related diseases such as diarrhea and cholera in the process.

“The children and I used to go to the bush to relieve ourselves,” said Mercy.

If diseases broke out in Kajuni 2 village due to poor disposal of excreta, families such as Mercy’s would not only be battered physically but would also have to see their little hard earned money disappear in the name of medical expenses.

Apart from the risk of sanitation related diseases, defecating in the bush also reduces the dignity of women when they and men or children run into one another.However, the 44 year old widow is confident she and her household are now safeguarded from sanitation related diseases, thanks to the pit latrine that she dug for her family, making visitations to the bush to defecate a thing of the past.

“It took me four days to dig this latrine,” explained Mercy.

“I spent another two days preparing mud blocks for the wall and I did the actual construction of the structure in one day,” explained the widow.
In many communities in Malawi, latrine construction is traditionally a man’s territory, leaving some unmarried women and widows in rural areas with the bush as their only option.

It is due to this traditional thinking that, although she eventually managed to construct her own latrine, Mercy initially doubted she could do it. But following the intervention of a Plan Malawi sanitation project, Mercy gathered enough courage to take the task head on.

In many rural areas in Malawi, the role of women in sanitation at household level has been confined to such tasks as smearing the latrine floor with mud after construction, cleaning and providing water for hand washing.

Turning point

Maxmillan Msafiri works for the Development Aid for People to People (DAPP), one of the local organisations to which Plan Malawi disburses sub-grants to implement government’s Accelerated Sanitation and Hygiene Practices in Malawi, a project supported by the Global Sanitation Fund (GSF). The GSF Programme aims at helping the poorest people attain safe sanitation services and adopt good hygiene practices.

In communities that still practice open defecation, people are mobilized and prompted to analyse the sanitation situation in their community in a process known as triggering.
According to Msafiri, it is through encouragement from project implementers of the GSF supported project that Mercy believed in her ability to construct the latrine.

“After triggering a community, we make follow up visits to each household, checking if members have done what we agreed that they would do in terms of sanitation,” Msafiri explained.

“When we got to her home she told us she did not have a pit latrine because she had no husband to do the construction work,” disclosed Msafiri.

Mercy’s explanation prompted project workers to sit her down to help her understand that she could construct a latrine without the help of a man.

“We shared with her stories of other women in T/A N’gabu who had constructed pit latrines on their own, without the help of men,” explained Msafiri.

That talk with project workers marked Mercy’s turning point in her belief in her ability to provide sanitation facilities to her family. A few days after her interaction with the project workers, Mercy had not only dug the pit, but had also started erecting the structure of the latrine. Outside her latrine is mounted a hand washing facility, an important element in sanitation and hygiene which the GSF Programme also strongly promotes.

Mercy is not the only shining example of women who have defied traditional gender expectations on their role in sanitation in T/A Ng’abu in Chikhwawa district, according to Rhoda Ponyani, DAPP’s Sanitation and Hygiene Project Leader.

“More than ten women have done the same in the Traditional Area,” said Ponyani.

“Some of the women constructed the pit latrines not because they don’t have husbands to do the work.

“In some cases it’s because the men are not yet convinced about the need for their households to have such facilities so the women take it upon themselves to do it,” the Project Leader explained.

Women such as Mercy, a widow, are just one group of people that the GSF Programme in Malawi targets to ensure equity and inclusion in access to sanitation. The special interest in vulnerable and excluded groups such as female and child headed households by the GSF programme in Malawi is part of an effort to ensure that sanitation promotion is a complete package.

“Just like with any other diseases, when sanitation related illness strike a family, it is mostly the woman on whose head the responsibility of care for the sick falls,” said Richman Kalua, Plan Malawi’s WASH Programme Manager.

“We therefore need to address this critical constituency of our society through innovative sanitation programming,” added Kalua.

Under the programme there are deliberate measures taken to register meaningful impact on the vulnerable and the excluded.

For example, according to Kalua, during triggering GSF programme implementers ensure everybody in the community attends and participates.

“When sanitation committees are formed, we make sure we attain gender balance, an attempt to ensure the needs of both men and women are represented.

“Sometimes the committees go an extra mile by constructing pit latrines for such people as the elderly who may not be able to carry out the work on their own” concluded Kalua.

Activities supported by the GSF Programme that have changed lives of people like Mercy are part of the efforts by the sanitation sector in Malawi in working towards government’s ambitious goal of completely eliminating open defecation by the year 2015. It is anticipated that this will contribute towards the Millennium Development Goals target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to basic sanitation by 2015.

Improved sanitation and hygiene for people like Mercy means a contribution towards other MDGs including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. She will save the money that she could have committed to medical care if sanitation related illnesses struck her household.

Good health for children like Mercy’s attained through improved sanitation also allows them to attend school, thereby helping achieve universal primary education, another MDG.

However, the Malawi government’s ambitious goal of eliminating open defecation by 2015 faces a tough obstacle in areas such as Chikhwawa, though. According to DAPP’s Maxmillan Msafiri, soils in such areas are weak. Latrines easily collapse and sink, forcing villagers to construct new ones after every few months. Quite a frustrating endeavour. Some simply give up and revert to visits to bushes. Female or child headed households may be the most affected by this. People like Mercy therefore may have to be equipped with skills for constructing latrines using cheap sanitation technologies that, according to Plan Malawi’s Kalua, are available and could help combat the problem.