The slippery slide of open defecation

Dear Editor,

WORLDWIDE about 2.3 billion people are living without access to safe sanitation services (UNICEF, 2015). Sanitation among other things refers to the provision of toilets, a basic human need. In Namibia, only 34 percent of households have access to sanitation facilities according to the Situational Analysis Report of 2018. What is more striking, 50 percent of our population practices open defecation, of which 74 percent reside in rural areas.
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Open defecation (or OD for short) may be a new term to some; it can also be referred to as “shitting” or relieving oneself in open spaces instead of using a toilet. This may be in the bush, field or even the streets. Open defecation is a culturally sensitive topic to many. Global studies show that simply building latrines and toilets doesn’t mean people will use them, as this practice is not embedded in some cultures. Some reasons for poor sanitation practices can be found in the lack of understanding of the socio-cultural norms which underpin the use of sanitation. Weak coordination between stakeholders is another factor.

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Importantly, when building toilets, people for whom they are intended must be involved, both in connection with the construction and operation of toilets.

Key question that motivated me to write this article is this: why is open defecation still prevalent in a country with a population of 2.5 million?  The population of India is 1.3 billion and the prevalence of OD is 25 percent (Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, UNICEF, 2017). Why do we struggle as a country to reduce open defecation, is it not a priority to us?

I am not an expert in this field but earlier this year I carried out a mini supervised research under the auspices of the University of Namibia.

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The aim of the study was to explore the socio-cultural factors that shape how people use sanitation services in two communities in Namibia. I surveyed 40 community members in total. I wanted to hear from them first hand and understand their values, beliefs and ideas regarding sanitation. My findings point out to some social and behavioral issues. In both constituencies I studied, men believe that it is very common and a normal practice for people to defecate in the open.

In other words, seeing people openly defecate almost every day became a norm. At the same time, that they do not believe it’s a traditional practice. They also stressed that they do not have enough government provided toilets and citied lack of cleanliness as a major barrier to use. Strikingly, while conveying they are not in a financial position to upgrade or even build toilets for themselves, the findings revealed that the people place greater value on owning a mobile phones for taking pictures, feeling good and for their esteem, rather than investing it in a toilet.
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Open defecation is linked to poverty and Namibia, while being a highly unequal society, is not as poor compared to some other countries. Let’s look at Somalia as an example: a war torn country, with far greater political and economic problems has a smaller OD rate of 37 percent.
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Can Namibia, one of the most opulent southern African countries from the land to the sea, not do better? This may sound cliché but transformative change starts with oneself. There is a clear problem on how people, especially young people, set their priorities. As a young Namibian, I feel strongly about investing in human capital and that entails working with our communities to set the priorities right. Our development as a nation, our health and education, simply cannot improve with such high rates of open defecation, as many studies have shown. Similarly, I hope we will show a similar level of enthusiasm as on the recently concluded regional and local elections for community issues and prioritise improving sanitation in Namibia. As young people, let’s lead the charge and choose to invest in a good toilet rather than an iPhone X.

George Shan