Women lead sanitation improvements in Malawi, one latrine at a time

Kitty (far left) attends a Community Health Action Group meeting to discuss ways to improve their reach in the community.

Story by Sam Sande, District WASH Officer, and Rejoice Phiri, Communications Manager, USAID’s ONSE Health Activity

“Faliya and I have built over 14 toilets and we are not slowing down,” says Kitty Kachingwe Likuda, a resident of Khanyizira in Malawi’s southern district of Mulanje.

The lack of proper sanitation and hygiene remains one of the greatest barriers to global development. Approximately 47% of households in rural areas of Malawi still lack access to an improved sanitation facility, which commonly leads to waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea. The impacts are particularly devastating for children — diarrheal disease is a leading cause of death among children in Malawi.

In 2016, 53% of households in Mulanje district did not have sanitation facilities that met national standards, including a roof, a strong structure that does not leak or collapse and is not shared beyond household members, a drop-hole cover, impermeable floors, lockable doors, and a handwashing facility.

With support from USAID’s ONSE Health Activity, the Khanyizira community formed a Community Health Action Group — a platform to work together to explore health-related problems and develop action plans to address them. Hygiene and sanitation emerged as a key priority for community members, who cited access to proper sanitation and clean water as vital for the health and safety of their children and families. In response, the ONSE team and its partners mobilized local masons, building their skills and supervising the construction of improved latrines.

The installation of basic latrines includes laying the cement or sand screed that makes the floor impermeable, reducing odors, and making latrines more hygienic and easier to clean. The use of a flapper, also known as a SaTo Pan, operates much like a trap door, helping limit the transmission of disease by ensuring that latrines are closed off from open air to prevent flies and insects from spreading disease. 

[Each family is encouraged to have a hand washing facility outside of their toilet.]Each family is encouraged to have a hand washing facility outside of their toilet.ONSE organized, financed, and facilitated a demonstration exercise in Khanyizira where community members witnessed the construction of an improved pit latrine. The demonstration promoted handwashing to ensure good hygiene practices in the community, and simple handwashing facilities, locally known as “mponda gear” or Tippy Taps, were installed at the entrance of every latrine.

Kitty and Faliya Mungwala, secretary of the Khanyizira Community Health Action Group, attended the demonstration, which reflected a growing demand for hygienic, basic latrines. After local leadership and community members noted that trained masons were often absent from many assigned tasks and did not meet expectations, the community grew frustrated. Faliya and Kitty decided to do something about it. They would build the latrines themselves.

To improve their skills and build confidence among their community and customers, Faliya and Kitty requested that ONSE facilitate a training for them. ONSE supported this initiative and provided formal training to Faliya and Kitty in improved latrine construction and flapper installation.

“We have become role models in our community; women now realize that they can accomplish anything they put their mind to.” — Kitty Kachingwe Likuda

“After they saw our work, our community was very supportive, and before long, everyone wanted us to build them a toilet with a flapper,” says Faliya. “This has also helped our families to be economically secure. Before this, I was a housewife and I depended on my husband for everything. Now I am able to contribute financially in the home and we no longer lack basic necessities. Our children are well fed, and we no longer struggle to find money to pay for their school fees or uniforms.”

[A happy customer cleans her family’s flapper toilet.]A happy customer cleans her family’s flapper toilet.Today, Faliya and Kitty are well known in their village and the surrounding community as “the women who have mastered a ‘man’s’ job as masons.” One community member happily talked about how the flapper latrine innovation has reduced the number of times her family is sick and decreased odor near her home. “My family and I are so happy with our toilet. It was built by Kitty and Faliya using materials such as cement so that it is strong. I have no worries that it will collapse this rainy season, as it has done many years before, and we don’t worry about diseases like diarrhea. We were taught how to thoroughly clean it — it is now so smart-looking and hygienic that I can even go in and have my lunch in it,” she finished, laughing.

Khanyizira has 901 households and to date, with financial and technical support from ONSE and its local partners, 64 improved pit latrines are in place, 57 of which have flappers. Hygiene Village Project, a sub-grantee of ONSE, is facilitating the community construction of the improved pit latrines, while ONSE conducts supervision and verifies the constructed latrines.

This community-led initiative responds to a strong demand from the people of Khanyizira. Its scale-up points to the effectiveness and affordability of the sanitation facilities. On average, one 50 Kg bag of cement can construct three to four latrines, depending on size, allowing multiple households to share the cost of cement and labor. A flapper costs approximately 7 USD, which most households in Mulanje district can afford. Hardware stores and other retail shops in the district now stock flappers and other sanitary products, giving households access to hygienic supplies and promoting the sustainability of improved pit latrines in the district.

[Faliya Mungwala shows off one of the latrines that she constructed.]Faliya Mungwala shows off one of the latrines that she constructed.

The Khanyizira Community Health Action Group is proud to have a community-led initiative that is strengthening social accountability, solidarity, and trust.

“We are planning to buy more equipment to ensure that our work is that of quality,” says Kitty. “In addition, we have become role models in our community; women now realize that one can accomplish anything as long as they put their mind to it.”