Vinh Thanh Village is nestled in the Mekong Delta region of southern Viet Nam, famous as a major rice growing area. On a sunny morning, residents have come together to attend a very special performance. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful, and the village health workers organising the session are pleased to see such a large audience.
"Today we will invite you to see with your eyes where diseases like diarrhoea - which represents a huge problem for our community - come from and how to get rid of them," M. Binh, one of the village health workers, starts. "But first I’ll invite one of you to join and help me draw a map of our village".
Using bits of thread to define the main road, blue lint for the river on each side of the village, and leaves to symbolise the paddy fields, the volunteer is progressively giving shape to a representation of the village on the ground. M. Binh is good-humoured and villagers soon join in with enthusiasm as he asks them to define other landmarks with bits of paper and sandstones: houses, the Buddhist temple, the school.
"Now, people have to eat every day and then they have to release it somehow. Where does this happen," M. Binh asks in a cheeky tone. Overwhelmed by embarrassment, spectators keep an uneasy smile on their face. But it doesn’t last long. Giggles soon erupt from the audience. "Come on! Each one of you take yellow powder and show me where this happens," M. Binh says.
Volunteers now mark the various excreta sites around the village. They will later be asked to go see real defecation spots all around the paddy fields, where they will be told about the high risk of contamination to the food they eat and the water they drink from germs in human waste.
This 'walk of shame' is meant to help the community understand the harmful consequences that their current defecation practices can have on their health and well-being, and ultimately trigger behaviour change. Calculating the health costs incurred due to diseases related to unhygienic practices is also part of the process.
The modern toilet facilities that Mrs Vo Thi Mit built outside her home following a sensitisation session six months ago.
Through this session, residents of Vinh Thanh Village are taking part in a new "Community Approaches to Total Sanitation" (CATS) project that has proved successful in many other countries.
Currently only two out of five families in Vinh Thanh Village have toilets. Although Vietnam has made substantial achievements in water supply, progress in sanitation and hygiene is still lagging far behind, especially in rural areas, where 70 per cent of the country's 86 million inhabitants still live. According to the 2009 National Census, about 60 per cent of people living in rural area do not have access to hygienic latrines. Open defecation is still a common practice in many rural areas.
CATS helps communities analyse their sanitation situation, their defecation practices and the ill-effects of these practices. This is followed by collective action to achieve a community that is 'open-defecation-free'. Unlike other sanitation approaches that provide subsidies in the form of cash and/or hardware to households and concentrate on latrine construction, CATS focuses on empowering communities so they take action themselves. Now in its second year, the initiative has led to improved sanitation conditions for hundreds of households in Vietnam.
"The communities are showing great ownership of the CATS initiative and are very enthusiastic about the approach, which is not only improving their sanitation status but also enhancing their dignity," says Rajen Kumar Sharma, head of UNICEF Vietnam's Provincial Child-Friendly Programme, which supports the provision of integrated services for children in six provinces in Vietnam.
Mrs Vo Thi Mit of Vinh Binh Village, which is just next to Vinh Thanh Village, had modern toilets built outside her home following a sensitisation session six months ago. "It has been an eye-opener for me," she says. "I would never consider going back to the fields. I feel disgusted by the old habits."
The CATS approach helps parents understand the value of proper sanitation. "The walk of shame we did in the village, looking at all the risks we take when we defecate in the fields, was a real shock for me," says M. Vo Van Ngan of Vinh Binh Village. "It made me understand all this was about making sure my children are growing up healthy." He spent 12 million dong (632 US$) two month's salary go to build his own toilets. "I am a farmer, I grow rice. My wife is a street food vendor. We do not make much money. Of course I realised it was expensive to build latrines, but we know it is worth it," says Ngan.
Through the CATS initiative, progress towards "total sanitation" in rural communities has been impressive. Since 2009, 33 villages spread across five provinces have been declared 'open-defecation-free'. The approach is being replicated in other communes by the Vietnamese government.