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SDGs, urban sanitation and MHM- reporting back from the UNC Conference

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The conference crowd has grown to 700, according to the organisers. They seem surprised by their own popularity.

Discussion of SDGs continued at the afternoon plenary, which today was a panel discussion. (The panel of seven had only one woman on it.) After six statements about how visionary and game-changing the SDGs are, Mike Muller, of the World Economic Forum, spoke up for the skeptics.  The UN member states have made pledges before and not kept them, he pointed out. He mentioned a few broken promises, including the commitment to allocate a fixed percentage of GDP to foreign aid. The SDGs don’t make enough use of the word ‘must’, he said. There are too many ‘may’-s, which are things not likely to happen. So the SDGs, he argued, are not as different from the MDGs as they might appear to be. His positive observations were that there is a new attitude, and that the ‘balance of institutions has changed’ with the addition of the Asian Bank and the influence of China (balancing the disproportionate influence, he implied, of the World Bank on the development agenda). There are more ‘loci of behaviour’, and economies of the developing countries have grown.

Lilian Best (the only woman on the panel), who works at the Nigerian Finance Ministry, said that it’s time to take seriously the age-old ‘narrative of ownership’. As helpful as our ‘development partners’ are, she said, ‘we cannot allow them to lead the process’. It would be ‘refreshing’ for Nigeria to use its own domestic resources. Getting the dirty laundry out in the open, however, she also said that ‘sometimes governments don’t want to be accountable’.

Echoing others’ comments from earlier discussions, Bruce Gordon of the World Health Organization said that there will be ‘massive changes in how we monitor’, and the big push on human rights and water safety in the SDGs is indeed significant. A question from a Kenyan government official (Health Ministry) reflected some confusion. About monitoring, he asked, who will collect information, and how will it be shared?

Another question from the audience was about depletion of aquifers: when are we going to get away from the paradigm of digging wells? Chris Holmes, of USAID, responded by saying that new sensor technology gives us the ability to collect new types of information about aquifer levels, which wasn’t actually an answer to the question.

The skeptical Mike Muller had the last word. He warned that clashes between environmentalists and development workers are likely to occur in the future. ‘Sustainability’ refers to services, but also to the environment.

Session on urban issues: preparing for Habitat-III. The U.S. State Department (Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs - which I had never heard of before) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hosted a session on urban issues. Most of the session was a role-play session. Three ‘panels of experts’ from the audience made proposals to two ‘mayors’, and two ‘judges’ evaluated the proposals from the side. I was a mayor. (I actually did work in the New York City Mayor’s office for two years as the head of a unit on adolescent pregnancy.) The panels were instructed to recommend that the mayors start monitoring on two specific indicators. They had to justify these to the mayors, who were instructed to ask tough questions and be hard to persuade. They recommended things like counting how much of the population has adequate sanitation, the percentage of WASH-safe health care facilities and services, checking hospital or clinic data on incidents of diarrheal disease (disaggregated by socio-economic status, and including peri-urban areas), measuring the extent of piped supply water, and documenting the level of  sanitation for the poorest people. We mayors complained about tight budgets, and we asked why we should care about poor people or peri-urban areas, which aren’t even part of our cities. They explained to us that health of all citizens would improve if sanitation improved. This was a very interesting exercise for me and for the others too.

I learned recently that the Bangladesh government has for many years delayed passage of policies relating to slums, in the hopes that they will just disappear. According to my sources, there have been movements to kick out these squatters, send them back to the countryside. Slum-dwellers do not get old age pensions or other safety-net supports available to rural people. There is a policy paper floating around getting revised. The Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority has set up a Low Income Communities department, but I think it is funded by outside money. All the NGO work in slums is funded by donors, not the government.

MHM, cntd. I participated in the first half of a training session chaired by Therese Mahon (WaterAid-UK), which was also done at the WEDC conference last July. It’s a good training for practitioners. It starts out with having us classify various actions or experiences we consider to be either ‘open’ (never embarrassing topics of conversation), ‘private’ (discussed with or known by people close to us), ‘open secrets’ (known but not discussed), and ‘private’ (not discussed with anyone).
For this exercise I went back to my original anthropological fieldwork in south India (in what is now Karnataka State), where I lived in a village for almost two years. Unlike many other places, menstruation for the Hindus I knew was a fairly public matter. A woman sat on the verandah of her house for a few days when she was menstruating. Their euphemism for this was to say she was ‘outside’ this week. My neighbours kept better track of my menstrual periods than I did, and they warned me regularly that I would probably be killed by a cobra if I went in their temple while menstruating.

When a girl had her first menstrual period, there was a big rite of passage for her. She was offered many blessings and gifts with fertility associations. The way that some families did it, she sat in a leafy ‘hut’ in her house for a few days. Girls were no longer marrying at puberty, but in an earlier time, this event might have signaled her readiness for marriage and family life.

All this leads me to think that, while menstruation is culturally regarded as an ‘impure’ state, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a stigma, at least in that place and that time. It’s just a transition time, a time of separation. New mothers and their relatives and the families of deceased persons also are considered ‘impure’. It’s a cyclical thing.
Some kinds of impurity are ominous, dangerous, scary. Other adults’ feces and menstrual blood are considered so. These substances are presumed to cause all sorts of ill health, infertility, and probably even disability for both men and women. Impurity of Dalit caste members (formerly called untouchables), of course, also has highly negative social consequences. Their supposed family histories of doing defiling work keeps these people in the status of persona-non-grata wherever they go, if their caste is known.

But I’m not sure that menstruating girls are classified in these very negative ways, as tough as poor MHM conditions are for them in many, many places. They’re just going through normal cycles associated with birth etc. which require ritual separation in the place where I lived. There are cultural factors at play. We absolutely need them to stay in school, whatever the cultural codes are, but it probably would be a mistake to read too much into the ‘pollution’ idea without exploring its actual meaning to a specific group of people.

Suzanne Hanchett is a consultant and a partner in Planning Alternatives for Change.


Date: 29 October 2015