In bitterness you can find sweetness: insights from the 2022 world toilet day “making the invisible visible” overdue campaign
By Nadine T Coetzee, on 28 February 2023
By: Nadine Coetzee and Nelly Leblond, with contributions from Adriana Allen, Claudy Vouhé and Julia Wesely
Originally published by OVERDUE
What is the point of celebrating a daily need once a year?
International Days – for women, children, toilets – can seem paradoxical. Born out of the recognition of critical social struggles, they hope to raise awareness and catalyse structural change, while in practice prompting public attention to them for just 24 hours.
World Toilet Day, celebrated on November 19, was created by the World Toilet Organization in 2001, almost 22 years ago, and officially adopted by the United Nations in 2013. The multiple forms of deeply gendered everyday violence induced by inadequate sanitation across the world are at the core of the action research project OVERDUE: Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa, led by Prof. Allen at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, in close collaboration with a large group of researchers, practitioners and activists.
Here, we analyse the World Toilet Day 2022 celebrations led by the OVERDUE city teams based in Antananarivo (Madagascar), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Beira (Mozambique), Bukavu (DRC), Mwanza (Tanzania), Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Saint Louis (Senegal). We look at the insights these provide to advance political commitments, resources, and action towards just sanitation for all.
As the OVERDUE city teams took to their streets and settlements on November 19, in a brave and loud effort to engage residents and officials with loudspeakers, banners, marches, dance, and music, two key directions critical for sanitation justice were spotlighted.
First, the official theme “Making the invisible visible”, which originally focussed on ground water resources, was instead spun towards the “above ground” invisible factors shaping sanitation. Armed with the confidence and knowledge garnered by three years of research into sanitation histories, investments, practices and needs, the teams increased the depth and breadth of conversations. They tackled unspoken norms and stigmatising practices, female unpaid work and mental load, and sludge management approached as waste. Often hidden, these topics are nonetheless critical to delivering inclusive and sustained sanitation (Bhakta, Reed, et Fisher 2018; Bhakta 2020).
Second, OVERDUE city-teams celebrated sanitation to strengthen relations between communities and institutions to mobilize duty-bearers and resources taking forward their advocacy work in multiple directions.
“Igniting” communities and investments through awareness raising processes has improved sanitation in many rural areas, but has been less beneficial impact in urban settings (Myers 2016; Myers et al. 2018). Across urban Africa, strong networks of advocates and sustained relations are needed to reshape sanitation chains, creating the vital connections between ministries and local authorities to those interfacing with the reality of sanitation practices; the off-grid dwellers, their systems and coping mechanisms. OVERDUE 2022 World Toilet Day celebrations offer insights into such networks in action as they come together to mobilise support to advance just sanitation.
Sanitation is a difficult topic. As societies we often go to great lengths to keep it discreet or to avoid public discussion altogether. Mina Rakotoarindrasata from Genre en Action and Jeannine Ramarokoto from SiMIRALENTA remind us that in Madagascar there is a local saying to provoke engagement with challenging topics: “Ao anaty mangidy no misy ny mamy” “In bitterness one can find sweetness!”. Even in a pile of poo something good can be found!
Below we dive into three of these sweet spots, reflecting on how the OVERDUE 2022 WTD Campaign moved beyond sanitation gaps and open-air faecal flows, connecting duty-bearers and rights holders – individually and collectively – across the seven cities to support sanitation interventions with the capacity to push the boundaries.
#makevisibletheinvisible 1: Grounding public debates to include subaltern voices and experiences
Sanitation, and the taboos that surround matters of poo, wee and menstrual blood are challenging in all contexts, including urban Africa. Sanitation campaigns can easily back fire: for instance, rubber glove handouts can normalize degrading work, whilst “shaming and blaming” approaches can reinforce stigma and exclusion (Brewis et Wutich 2019).
The narratives, experiences, aspirations and needs of those interfacing and managing sanitation in urban Africa need to be central in the crafting of useful messages. To overcome the drift towards normalisation, stigmatisation and exclusion, OVERDUE team members co-designed their campaigns in and across cities with sanitation workers and users. Careful discussions ensured that those carrying the slogans and banners did so with pride.
In Bukavu, Astrid Mujinga and members of the CFCEM/GA and ISECOF led a campaign aiming to shift public discourse from “ending open air defecation” to increasing the accessibility and quality of public toilets. They drew on a series of interviews and knowledge exchanges with female students and workers covering the health, security and dignity issues generated by the absence of public facilities. Key messages such as “An unknown scourge: the absence of public toilets“, “public toilets = wellbeing for all”, “Let’s ask authorities to build public toilets for us” were disseminated by an energetic taxi caravan across the streets of Bukavu to call for urgent action and resources from local authorities.
In Antananarivo, members of SiMIRALENTA and Genre en Action, joined the National Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Conference to get ministries, municipalities, and key players to consider and act on faecal sludge with a gender lens. They showcased co-designed slogans, such as “Excreta is not garbage” (“Ny tay tsy fako” in Malagasy), a punchline produced with waste pickers, mostly women, to raise the issue of waste sorting and of adequate training and equipment for workers.
Inspired by the work of Penda Diouf at the Observatoire Genre et Développement de Saint Louis (OGDS) on women as invisible sanitation providers, the SLURC team in Freetown organized marches and events highlighting the burden of domestic sanitation work.
The team including Ibrahim Bakarr Bangura, Amadu Labor, Abdulai Turay, Braima Koroma and members of CODOHSAPA and FEDURP invited toilet caretakers, community-based organizations, NGOs and municipal workers to co-design the campaign’s message on women’s sanitation work and needs, which was shared on a tour across the city. A collective and creative approach enabled the team to get more people on-board, from the local police commander of the central business district to residents of informal neighbourhoods.
Across all these initiatives, local women and their collectives demonstrated their immense and unique power to foster and nurture sensitive discussions, from the crafting and planning of messages that are subtle yet bold, through to their delivery at the doors and desks of those in charge. This power is often overlooked but is straightforward evidence of the value of their inclusion in all steps.
Beyond reflections on the care needed to build impactful campaigns on topics that involve severe inequality and suffering, and on who should deliver them, these different World Toilet Day celebrations shed light on the process of “getting institutions back in the sanitation game” as duty-bearers holding the power to challenge the (un)sanitary status quo.
#makevisibletheinvisible 2: Getting local authorities to embody sanitation and advocate for change
In-depth interviews conducted throughout the OVERDUE project often reveal that sanitation remains a low priority in municipal and national agendas, one that might even be outsourced to a third party. NGOs funding sanitation projects, community-based associations or inhabitants are blamed for improper behaviours.
Through the 2022 OVERDUE World Toilet Day celebrations, we witnessed the creation of stimulating spaces in which local authorities could dialogue with citizens and community based organisations in comfort – without the fear of being antagonized – and re-engage critically with decisive action as power and resource holders.
In Saint Louis, OGDS’s president Ndeye Penda Diouf, Soukeyna Mbaye from the Association of Resourceful and Supportive Women of Saint-Louis, and Babacar Faye from Saint Louis Theatre Forum/Copin’ARTS organized a march to deliver a manifesto to local authorities. They did so with the support of neighbourhood secretaries (administrative area councillors) – exclusively men – calling for the acknowledgement and redistribution of their sanitation work, as well as for improved sanitation services in off-grid neighbourhoods. Promoted through the OVERDUE project, what was a few months ago conceived as a domestic and private issue concealed within households, has become a neighbourhood and city-wide matter. The support and mobilization of neighbourhood secretaries, now equipped to host public and collective discussions, turned OGDS’s fiction film “The uprising of invisible women workers” into reality.
In Beira, Hélder Domingos, president of the FACE Water and Sanitation Association and colleagues Marcia Saica, Canivete Americo and Marques Sembanhe, organized a celebration to present a timeline of sanitation in Beira. This was constructed under the OVERDUE project and bridges the colonial divide between the sanitation grid serving part of the central “cement” city, and the off grid “cane” peripheral areas, relying on on-site sanitation, connecting the current diversity of sanitation infrastructure and services operating across the city.
This boosted the interest of the municipal council, with officials acknowledging the need to expand efforts to address the colonial bifurcation that continues relegating under-served off-grid neighbourhoods. The campaign further connected municipal authorities to innovative practices and options already piloted within the city, making it an empowering experience for multiple organisations and collectives working along the sanitation chain.
In Abidjan, Angèle Koué led the Gender Parity and Women’s Leadership association GEPALEF ), with Joëlle Yao Kre, Nadège N’Gou, Roland Adja, Grâce Coulibably, and Franck Hermann Tapé, as well as the deputy Mayor of Koumassi, and members of the Koumassi Women’s Group, and of the Treichville Women’s Group rented a truck equipped with a huge sound system.
Drawing on background work conducted through the OVERDUE project digging into gendered needs, norms and taboos they drove across the city and stopped for dances and discussions in a way that brought sanitation users, paid and unpaid workers, and decision makers together to exchange their experiences and expectations. As a result, the mayor of Koumassi (one of ten urban administrative units of Abidjan) endorsed the creation of an all-female sanitation brigade, drawing on the pre-existing masculine one, with equal support and rights.
Using dance, song, boardrooms and open-air gatherings as a means to acknowledge efforts, valorise work, and discuss possibilities resulted in “a treat and a trick” (Laurent 1998) – an enticing celebration to draw the crowds and get people on board to talk sanitation. As noted by Prof. Wilbard Kombe at ARDHI University during the 2020 Mwanza Sanitation Festival, this type of celebratory framing has the power to get local authorities to publicly stand up for the issue of sanitation.
This necessary step towards increased accountability is, however, not sufficient in itself, and further negotiations and follow-up measures are needed to ensure that local authorities take responsibility and action. This is not achieved in a day. So, next, let us expand on the time frame needed to bring these elements to the fore.
#makevisibletheinvisible 3: Building and maintaining commitments, actions and resources
When it comes to just sanitation, networks must be patiently and incrementally woven. Practices of relegation and accumulation must be challenged and reshaped, if not inverted. OVERDUE partners are pushing this message about inverting the approach to sanitation, stating its importance and centrality to the effective functioning of urban areas. The OVERDUE 2022 World Toilet Day celebrations are just a window into ongoing efforts to make sanitation a priority, which continue as you read.
In Bukavu, on November 19, CFFCEM/GA got authorities to stand up in front of their constituents to endorse the start of the gender sensitive rehabilitation of the Nyawera market public toilets. Just a few months ago, they had denied that sanitation was an issue across the city! For CFFCEM/GA, ensuring that both women and men are involved and that the facilities, their management and their maintenance, are women friendly is a daily negotiation. The rehabilitation project would not have been possible without the prior support of elected officials, and women-led-advocacy in the first place.
In Antananarivo and Abidjan, the SiMIRALENTA/Genre en Action and GEPALEF teams are now growing partnerships and expertise to implement faecal sludge valorisation projects. Allyship within Malagasy institutions was boosted by t-shirts adorned with “In bitterness one can find sweetness. Urine and Excreta are energy sources” (Ao anaty mangidy no misy ny mamy, mey ho angovo ny ay sy ny amany). A continued and renewed push by the team, through meetings, phone calls and appointments, enabled the necessary institutions to support the supply of a school canteen with energy produced by the neighbouring biogas facility.
In Beira and Saint Louis, FACE and OGDS transformed celebratory contacts into networks to access or co-produce information on the current sanitation infrastructure, and management of sludge, in markets and households. This is now establishing the rehabilitation of public toilets in Beira and the piloting of household biogas production in Saint Louis.
Again, getting needs and experiences acknowledged, expertise deployed, and key institutions engaged is just part of the story. One of the most critical yet challenging aspects to advance just sanitation concerns financial sustainability. Political interest and appropriate backing is still scarce as sanitation facilities and services are often locked into conceptions of cost recovery, if not lucrative assets, that authorities can operate as needed. Inverting these expectations to locate sanitation as a field of investment for public health and wellbeing is a permanent battle, in African cities and beyond.
World Toilet Day celebrations proved valuable to prompt a wide range of key stakeholders to take sanitation seriously, and to move away from a ‘Band-Aid’ plumbing approach towards more strategic and ambitious actions. The campaigns prompted local authorities to acknowledge the different needs of women and men, and the gender power relations at play on the ground. They connected these with the institutions and organisations leading sanitation innovations and studies, and enabled the grounding of promises and interventions in the communities that are supposed to benefit from them, through their active and meaningful participation. This is a key move for us all at OVERDUE.
For our team, World Toilet Day 2022 was a chance to step back from the daily efforts to push for just sanitation, engage in a global conversation, and reflect on how far our OVERDUE team has come over the years.
It takes courage to get caravans and performances about faecal matter in motion to travel across one’s city. But it takes a certain fearlessness to lead these activities as a woman, as is the case in many of the examples above. Although the contexts of the seven cities are vastly different in many ways, on the whole women remain the silent and invisible majority of the unpaid workforce, are excluded from most of the paid sanitation work, and are unlikely to hold decision making positions on local authorities.
Supporting our colleagues across the seven cities, we would like to acknowledge their bravery, creativity and tireless efforts. Whereas two years ago the reach of the Voicing just sanitation campaign (OVERDUE World Toilet Day 2020 campaign) was relatively small, and public conversations about human waste were challenging, partners are now seeing their messages spreading as residents spontaneously join marches and calls for collaborations multiply.
The way in which each city developed its own set of modalities and messages, tapping into a broad range of advocacy strategies – drama skits in Freetown performed by local actors, taxi rides in Bukavu to spread the word across the city, a march in Saint Louis to attract visibility, and a big music-playing truck in Abidjan, exceeded what had been planned and anticipated. This international celebration has left us renewed with readiness to take on new challenges and to continue engaging with communities in a gender sensitive way to ensure that the experiences, practices and aspirations of women and men inhabiting African cities begin to shape sanitation priorities and interventions.
References and links
Bhakta, Amita. 2020. « Uncovering WASH Realities Through PhotoVoice ». The Sanitation Learning Hub, Brighton: IDS, SLH Learning Paper 9. https://sanitationlearninghub.org/resource/uncovering-wash-realities-through-photovoice/.
Bhakta, Amita, Brian Reed, et Julie Fisher. 2018. « Behind closed doors: The hidden needs of perimenopausal women in Ghana ». In Reproductive Geographies. Routledge.
Brewis, Alexandra, et Amber Wutich. 2019. Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health. 1st edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kar, Kamal, et Robert Chambers. 2008. « Handbook on Community-Led Total Sanitation ». Plan UK and Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, 51.
Laurent, Pierre-Joseph. 1998. Une association de développement en pays mossi : Le don comme ruse. Paris: Karthala.
Myers, Jamie. 2016. « Urban community-led total sanitation: a potential way forward for co-producing sanitation services ». Waterlines 35 (4): 388‑96.
Myers, Jamie, Sue Cavill, Samuel Musyoki, Katherine Pasteur, et Lucy Stevens. 2018. Innovations for Urban Sanitation. PRACTICAL ACTION PUBLISHING. https://doi.org/10.3362/9781780447360.
CFCEM/GA website: https://www.facebook.com/cfcemga2016.org/
FACE website: https://www.facebook.com/faceassociacao/
Film from CFCEM/GA: Public Facilities: an urgent need in Bukavu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmRz7FXebhM
Film from GEPLAEF: Gendered bodily norms and taboos: https://youtu.be/SrbwWkYJBsE
Film from OGDS: Women invisible workers in Sanitation: https://youtu.be/SrbwWkYJBsE
Film from OGDS: The uprising of invisible women workers: The uprising of invisible women workers
GEPALEF website: https://www.facebook.com/gepalef/
IIHS/OVERDUE Conference: the invisible workforce: how to value women’s role in sanitation?: https://youtu.be/0vxRPO9wvss
OGDS website: https://www.ogds.net/
OVERDUE website: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/
OVERDUE Knowledge Exchange “Weaving Sanitation and Gender Justice”: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?p=4209
OVERDUE Article on furthering sanitation justice: http://journals.hw.ac.uk/index.php/IPED/article/view/103
OVERDUE Blog: toilets are seats of gender equality: Gendered taboos surrounding sanitation deeply impact women and girls: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?p=3994
OVERDUE Blog on decolonizing through celebration: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2021/09/14/decolonising-urban-sanitation-through-celebration/
OVERDUE Prof. Kombe on Celebrating sanitation in Mwanza, Tanzania: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaP6m3EKXNI
OVERDUE Blog Mwanza 2020 Sanitation Festival: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?page_id=2558
OVERDUE Voicing Just sanitation campaign: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?page_id=4624#World-toilet-day
SiMIRALENTA website: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100083273620107
UN World Toilet Day: https://www.un.org/en/observances/toilet-day
World Toilet Organization: https://worldtoilet.org/web-agency-gb-about-us/