Obstacles against Phnom Village’s hope of adequate latrines

by Sabilul Maarifah Karmidi

11-year-old Sok Leap loved to learn Khmer at school (photo taken in 2016)

11-year-old Sok Leap preferred patiently lining up among the crowd to access one of the four latrines at her school to defecating outside in the field like some other students. Alas at home, her patience is of no use since she simply does not have a latrine. Her only choice is to reach the field in the open air. In fact, this is common in her village, Phnom, part of Preah Theat commune of Ou Reang Ov district, Cambodia. Here, constructing a latrine costs between 100-500 USD, a price tag still beyond many villagers’ financial means.

At the end of 2015, Neakpoan Organization for Development (NOD), a small NGO in Cambodia, brought WISE to Phnom Village to explore the condition and start a project. When WISE and NOD first visited, only 12 of the 101 households in this village owned latrines. Subsequently, the organizations returned to learn about their situation in more depth, conducting surveys and focus group discussions with 73 respondents with and without latrines.

Through a meeting with the commune chief, it was found that Phnom village had the lowest access to sanitation among the 22 villages in Preah Theat commune. Villagers understood that defecating outside contaminates the ground which causes blisters and itches, even when they wear shoes, but several issues prevented them from building a latrine and doing basic sanitary practice regularly.

Priorities and Financial Limitations

About 65% of villagers who responded to the needs assessment (links to Google Doc) in 2016 stated that cost was the main obstacle to building a latrine, while 35% had other more pressing needs to fulfil, namely, food. When asked what they would do if given some money, respondents said that buying food was still their main priority. Sanitation was in the second row, because villagers stated in some interviews that they valued the comfort, hygiene, and health benefit of having a latrine.

Mr Um Phai doesn’t want his grandchildren to defecate in the open

Responses from the needs assessment indicated that the households’ average monthly expenditure is about 131 USD, and is higher than the average income of 113 USD, which would leave nothing for even the most affordable latrine. According to a 2014 World Bank report, the poverty rate in Cambodia decreased to 20.5% in 2011. However, there were actually many more people at risk of falling back into poverty. Around three million people would be qualified as poor after losing just 0.30 USD from their daily income.

The statistics reflected the lack of opportunities for income. During our needs assessment visit, 28 families had migrated to other provinces or Thailand looking for work since jobs were not widely available locally. One couple, for example, did not have a steady income, earning 5 USD a day in seasonal jobs as day labourers like planting rubber trees. But, this work would only be available for a week to ten days in a month.

External Support and Subsidy

Support for latrine construction had come to the village before. In 2016, a microfinance institution offered loans to construct latrines. However, only 17 families were willing or able to take the loan. This might sound like an improvement, but the loan did not cover the construction of walls and roof, preventing villagers from using the latrines they built. For a long time, some latrines remained without any walls or roofs.

A toilet built with microfinance institution support but without a wall or roof

In 2006, the government issued the National Guiding Principles on Hardware Subsidies for Rural Household Sanitation that restricted the amount of subsidy that NGOs, or any organisation, could provide. One condition stipulated that only households with poor ID cards (issued through the ID Poor program implemented by the Ministry of Planning) could receive a subsidy. This condition meant that only 12 of the households interviewed in Phnom village would qualify for subsidy. The villagers, however, thought that this did not represent the real condition since many households without the card were also poor.

The ID Poor program (links to PDF) enables poor citizens in rural Cambodia to access assistance, such as medicine, food, livestock, and education. To determine their eligibility for an ID Poor card, a village representative group (VRG) and the village chief interviews households based on a standardized questionnaire (PDF). Once listed in the ID Poor database, the household is able to receive subsidy (PDF) of up to 50 USD to construct a latrine, while also being required to contribute a minimum amount of 30 USD.

Beyond Financial Barriers

During a planning workshop with the community in October 2017, issues other than money came up. Household tasks including ensuring sanitation and hygiene were still considered women’s duties. Yet, some women shared that challenging their husband’s authority may get them beaten. Some men were also reportedly forbade their wives to attend the workshop that taught them about sanitation and excluded them from critical spending decisions like building latrines. Besides that the lack of infrastructure such as the bumpy and muddy road became additional factor that hindered the access to and from places out of their village.

Phnom Village’s women during the workshop

Sok Leap and other Phnom villagers may wish to improve their health and privacy by providing a basic latrine. Unfortunately, limited financial ability, inadequate external support, and other factors make the construction of adequate latrines challenging despite their understanding of how critical hygiene and sanitation is to their lives.

WISE and NOD are committed to supporting the residents’ hopes for better hygiene and sanitation conditions, starting with a latrine construction subsidy scheme. To help, donate towards our work through https://chuffed.org/project/phnom-pilot-subsidy.

Sabilul Maarifah Karmidi was mobilised through UNV’s Online Volunteering Service.

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