Achieving the Open Defecation Free (ODF) target in rural villages and communes is an honorable, but often considered far-fetched, mission for local authorities considering the poverty of rural villagers and their long unwavering habit of not using a toilet passed from previous generations. However, with “a strong strategy and an inspired team work,” 63-year-old Soeung Mim has proved that ODF is possible with his recent achievement in three villages.
Soeung Mim is one of the nine commune councilors in Krang Chek Commune, Oudong District, Kampong Speu province. He has been working at the commune level for more than two decades, and since the first Commune Council election held in 2002, he has never failed to be re-elected as a member of the commune council, serving three consecutive terms.
In 2010, Mr Mim was introduced to a local sanitation business supplier and since then he has been an official commissioned sales agent for the local supplier. Yet, advocating for behavioral change, especially dealing with the habit of defecation, was not one of Mr Mim’s strengths in performing his civic role.
“Back then, in the whole Krang Chek commune, there were about only 600 latrines built while there are more than 3,000 households in the commune,” he said, “and to be honest, it was almost an impossible task to persuade people to buy latrines to use when everyone’s perception toward open defecation habit is not just acceptable but inherited.”
Albeit not so actively, Mr Mim and the commune council team had been promoting the use of latrines since 2010 and by October 2013, about 1,100 households had built toilets. However, he admitted that in that time he had began questioning his leadership skills, and considered his ability was falling far short of what was required to bring change to the community.
Leadership at the Commune Level
Recognizing the potential of many commune leaders such as Soeung Mim who are eager to bring about positive change in their communities yet lack planning, leadership and advocacy experience, WaterSHED was inspired to develop the Civic Champions leadership program. This program aims to empower local leaders to be the best leader they can be and enable them to inspire others to join with them to drive positive change for their communities. Civic Champion participants have been challenged to hone their leadership capacity by engaging their communities to change their sanitation behaviors by increasing latrine usage and stopping open defecation. Mr Mim found that joining the Civic Champions leadership program was a golden opportunity as he valued leadership skills, so without hesitation, he registered and paid the joining fee to be a part of the program.
“I believe the Commune Council works just like the National Assembly,” he said, “we discuss, we plan and we implement actions that can ensure the welfare of the villagers, so I think leadership is so essential for us to lead everyone to prosperity”
In just three months after the training from October to December 2013, Krang Chek Commune has experienced a significant rise in the purchase and use of toilets. More than 160 latrines were ordered, and five villages, namely Krang Chongruk,
Ampil Ph’aem, Krang Chek, Ta Ni and Trapeang Kroem, have become ODF villages, three of which are the result of Mr Mim’s hard work.
Mr Mim believes two important factors contributed to his recent success, and he is positive that every other leader can follow.
“You just need a set of strategies that will hit the target and a team of committed and inspired leaders who are willing to work,” he added, “yet the most important part is you yourself serving as a catalyst pushing the two elements to consistently support the project”.
Through the Civic Champions leadership program, Seoung Mim had a chance to meet other commune councilors and exchange experiences and inspiring stories happening in their respective communes. He has learned that the success of advocacy lies on his understanding of the target audience and his engagement with them.
“When you know your villagers well, it is like when doctors know the virus, so they can provide the right medicine for the patient,” he said, “so in our cases, we know why they don’t buy or use latrine, the virus, and how we can push them.”
From his experiences, Mr Mim believes that both the medium- and the low-income families can afford to purchase and use latrines. The key is to make them believe that toilet is very beneficial to use and that not having a toilet is extremely harmful to their health, family and security.
Mr Mim actively works and consults with the village chiefs every month to ensure that toilet is always on the agenda of the monthly meeting and that he has all the tools and data related to sanitation. For those villagers who do not feel inspired to use a toilet or fail to attend the regular meeting, Mr Mim pursues them right to their house and makes a regular follow up. The second most challenging obstacle to toilet use after habit is the financial issue, yet Mr Mim is confident that nothing is impossible.
“For poor families, I encourage them to use the loan system to buy latrines, and they would have to pay less than US $5 a month, so in just a year or two, they will be able to own the pour flush latrine as well,” he said.
Chhay Somed, a farmer in Koh Village, Krang Chek Commune, is one of the poor households who have been motivated by Soeung Mim. After harvesting in November 2013, her family decided to build latrine, yet due to the lack of money, they bought the bricks for latrine shelter first as a starting point in order to avoid spending all the money on other household priorities. In addition she has taken a loan from VisionFund to buy the core latrine components and pay for the installation service.
“I feel bad and worried for my children, especially my daughter, when they need to defecate at night or during the rainy season. Now, I have the bricks ready, and Pu [Uncle] Mim helped us with the loan process, so we will have a toilet very soon,” Ms Somed said.
Leadership Inspires Leaders
With all these achievements, Soeung Mim gives full credit to all the nine commune councilors who have been kindly supporting and prioritizing sanitation as an issue and developing a plan of action in every monthly commune council meeting.
“My goal is to motivate all the commune councilors to pay attention to the sanitation issue so that we all can take action together because no matter how hard I work, I cannot achieve this alone,” he said.
Cheng Khoeung, Krang Chek Commune Chief, agreed with what Mr Mim said about raising the importance of teamwork to achieve the ODF goal.
“When all the commune councilors share the same belief, the work becomes more effective, and I am very glad that we have an active member like Mr Mim to inspire us to be excited about the Sanitation Marketing project of WaterSHED,” Mr Kheoung said.
Another important leader that Mim felt is the most powerful catalyst to the success of ODF is the village chief.
“Village chiefs are your most useful resource to cooperate to achieve the goal whether it is sanitation related or not, so I would recommend every other commune councilor to spend time talking and pushing the village chiefs to work harder for the betterment of our community,” he said.
Krang Chek commune has 24 villages and a total of 3,174 households. The coverage across the commune in 2011 was 25.4%. It is now 35.9% exceeding the Cambodian MDG. With five villages demonstrating that ODF is possible, Mr Mim and his commune council team are well on the way to making good progress for his commune to be declared an open defecation free zone.