Appeal: The price of dignity for Fatima? A clean latrine

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The Independent Online

For Fatima Begum, going to the lavatory is a nightmare. And that is not because the lavatory is a couple of planks of wood over an open stream that carries the sewage through the heart of the slum where she lives. By day, when the men are here, the women of this slum in Bangladesh's capital are too ashamed to use the latrine in front of them. And by night, men from outside the slum hang around. Women run the risk of rape after dark.

For Fatima Begum, going to the lavatory is a nightmare. And that is not because the lavatory is a couple of planks of wood over an open stream that carries the sewage through the heart of the slum where she lives. By day, when the men are here, the women of this slum in Bangladesh's capital are too ashamed to use the latrine in front of them. And by night, men from outside the slum hang around. Women run the risk of rape after dark.

The slum is in the heart of Dhaka, a city of more than 10 million people where the desperately poor are overlooked by the tower apartment blocks of the middle classes. But here, among the warrens of the slum, even the most basic necessities of life are a gruelling ordeal.

The two latrines Fatima uses are shared by 25 families. They are flimsy affairs, just four bamboo screens that do not even reach the ground to provide a little privacy, hanging out over the open sewer. This is what they call a hanging latrine.

Most of the women try to come in the middle of the day, for a short space of time when the men are at work. "We all suffer pains from trying to avoid going," Fatima says. "Sometimes the queues are so long some of the women cannot hold it in, and go in their clothes while they're waiting in the queue." If they have to come at night, the women take another woman with them for protection. There is no electric light, and it is pitch dark. "If one of us is attacked, the other woman will call for help," Fatima says. "Perhaps some one will hear and come to help. That is our only hope."

The women who are married can rely on their husbands for protection, but half of the women here are single mothers. A few, like Fatima, are widows. Most have been abandoned by runaway husbands.

To most in the West, it may seem surprising that a charity whose focus is providing water is needed in Bangladesh, a country that suffered its worst floods in decades this summer. Much of the country was under water, including the slum where Fatima lives.

But WaterAid does not only provide drought relief. The flood water, which spreads disease, is an enemy of the slum-dwellers. What these people need is clean, safe drinking water, and basic sanitation. That is where WaterAid comes in.

The slum where Fatima lives is a wretched place, desperately narrow alleys between the corrugated metal walls of the shanty houses, the ground a mass of mud and human faeces. The slum ends abruptly at a fetid lake of foul-smelling water. This is the sewage outlet for the middle-class apartments opposite. And this is where Fatima and the other women have to wash the old rags they use as makeshift sanitary towels during their periods. There are no disposable sanitary towels in Bangladesh; they hang the rags up to dry and reuse them.

"Look at those buildings," Fatima says, pointing at the apartment blocks. "People are living there and bringing up their children properly. We have the right to do the same but look at this slum. We don't want anything free. We are hard-working people. If some one lends us the money to get out of this situation, we will repay him."

She earns just £3.50 a month working as a cleaner. One young son lives with her, the rest of her children have grown up. She lives in squalor, but there is a fierce pride about her. She holds her head high and looks you in the eye. What she wants most of all is her dignity. WaterAid's local partner, DSK, already provides the only source of clean drinking water to the village. The city water authorities refused to supply clean water here, because the slum-dwellers do not have the legal right of tenancy to the land. So DSK stepped in as guarantor.

But the people can afford to use the clean water only for drinking. Fatima gets her water for washing and cooking from a shallow well next to her shack. The walls of the well are crawling with cockroaches. When she lifts out a bucket of water, insects are floating in it.

The charity has bigger plans for this slum. What it wants to do here can be seen at another place across town, known locally as Aimal's slum, where another WaterAid partner, PSTC, has built clean and hygienic modern lavatories. There are separate sections for men and women, concrete blocks that offer complete privacy. There is electric lighting round the clock. And instead of a couple of planks over an open sewer, there are white ceramic "squatter"-style lavatories, and covered drains. There are plentiful lavatories for everybody. There are separate bath-houses for men and women too.

It does not stop there. Where the ground in Fatima's slum is a mass of mud and human faeces, here the charity has arranged for it to be concreted over. Where the stench of human excrement hangs over the slum where Fatima lives, and disease-spreading flies and mosquitoes swarm, here the air is clean and there are far fewer insects.

Rokeya Ahmed of WaterAid says: "Look what a difference basic hygiene makes." The atmosphere of this slum is different. In Fatima's home, mobs of filthy children gather around outsiders who venture in; here the children are clean, and nobody crowds the outsider. There is an air of dignity.

The lavatories are spotless. The slum-dwellers have organised a committee and everyone pays their share to help maintain that cleanliness. Amina, 30, is one of the cleaners. Her husband is a heroin addict and she is the only breadwinner for the family. Now she gets £3 a month for helping clean the lavatories.

Water Aid's policy in Bangladesh is for all its schemes to be sustainable, so they are not hand-outs. The slum gradually repays the charity's investment by paying small, regular amounts from each local committee or group.

So clean are the lavatories that the slum-dwellers' hygiene committee holds its meetings next to them because there is no bad smell. The people say they have already noticed a sharp reduction in diarrhoea among their children. And now the women of the slum have their dignity. "It's given our slum prestige," Amina says. "It's even improved our daughters' marriage prospects."

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