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A million Rohingya refugees, more than half of them children, are cramped up in 36 highly fragile locations across Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh. A situation no human, particularly children, should ever be subjected to. 

This is not only a depressing sight, but also a nightmare for humanitarian agencies trying to provide access to basic needs for the refugees.  The terrain where the refugees were asked to settle in their scanty looking shelters is difficult and hilly. It poses many logistical challenges to providing basic services, including water and sanitation. There is a high potential risk of disease outbreak especially for children, which has necessitated a response in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) by various agencies including Save the Children.

Save the Children’s WASH response aimed to increase access to WASH services, including provision of safe water, improved latrines and bathing showers for better sanitation. Our response also aimed to promote better hygiene thereby minimizing potential public health risks to children and their families.

We initiated our WASH response like any first phase response in a refugee context, implementing life-saving activities such as:

  • distribution of hygiene items and water purification tablets,
  • supplying safe drinking water,
  • conducting hygiene promotion activities through community volunteers, and
  • constructing infrastructure such as latrines and bathing showers.

The focus of our response was on speed and meeting the urgent needs of refugees. We also wanted to focus on longevity, as refugees are expected not to return quickly to their original homes.

One of the key WASH activities to reduce risk of a disease outbreak was to reduce open defecation. We did this through access to latrines and bathing showers.  Various designs for WASH sanitation infrastructure (latrines and bathing showers) were discussed in the WASH cluster/sub-cluster meetings.  Designs were also discussed in technical working groups that involved experts from various WASH agencies including the government.

Once the designs were finalised, we set up WASH committees with representatives from the refugee community. We consulted with them on the best locations for the emergency latrines and bathing showers and modalities of construction. The construction of emergency latrines decreased open defecation considerably and gave safe and easy access particularly for women and the elderly.

Newly constructed emergency latrines. Credit: SCUK.

However, it was disheartening to see that children were still defecating in the open and did not use the emergency latrines.  This is when we made a realisation. While we were organising and implementing the emergency WASH activities for 150,000 refugees in nine different camps we had missed out a key group. We hadn’t included children in our consultations or participation.

Thanks to the user-centred community engagement (UCCE) project funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, our WASH team were able to re-think how we could involve children in the sanitation design modifications.

The initial design of the gender segregated latrines consisted of three cubicles for female and two for male. The latrines design was a direct drop (faeces going directly into the pit) with standard pre-cast slab floor with a pan.

This design was presented to children and their mothers from camps in Jadimura, where approximately 150 latrines were already constructed. A software developed on a tablet as part of the UCCE project captured key issues that children and mothers faced while using the existing latrine. The children could touch on the tablet and show which areas in the existing latrines had discouraged them. Mothers and care givers were able to explain issues verbally.

The key issues were then put forward to further discussion with children in what was called a ‘co-creation’ session. This aimed to identify children’s expectations and potential solutions. The children were confidence in expressing their opinions and we feel that in hindsight we should have done this at the start of the response itself. Nevertheless, ‘better late than never’ as the saying goes.

Children and mothers review the existing latrine design. Credit: SCUK.
Co-creation session in progress. Credit: SCUK.

Most of the children identified major issues as:

  • the type of lock on the latrine door,
  • distance of the latrine from their house,
  • gaps between the footrests, and
  • bad odour from the latrine pits.

Their intuitive responses made us feel that latrine design could be child’s play!

Given that Save the Children does take children’s experiences seriously, we made design modifications immediately. These included:

  • changing the lock design on the door,
  • reducing space between footrests, and
  • installing solar lamps.

A few months later during a monitoring visit to Jadimura, it was a satisfying to learn that children, particularly girls, have started using the latrine. This eventually also brought down open defecation around the camps considerably.

Solar lamps installed near latrines. Credit: SCUK.

Thankful words from latrine users, particularly children, encouraged us to put children at the heart of every future WASH response.

We will ensure that their views on design, infrastructure and response activities are listened to and acted upon.

A blog by Nutan Pokhrel and Abraham Varampath.

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