The partial usage of toilets

22 February 2016

The partial usage of toilets is a frontier subject for Community-Led Total Sanitation as well as the broader sanitation sector. Some members of a household may not use a toilet at all, while others may only use it some of the time. Some people may only use toilets during the rainy season when open defecation becomes more difficult and uncomfortable.

Partial usage of toilets both prevents and threatens open defecation free (ODF) status of communities. It is something we explore in Norms, Knowledge and Usage, the latest in the CLTS Knowledge Hubs Frontiers of CLTS: Innovations and Insights series.

The word frontier is appropriate as it is something not well researched or documented and consequently we know very little about it. Most of the evidence comes from India where the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), a large scale government sanitation programme, is currently underway. However, India is also where most of the research has been conducted and we cannot assume that this does not happen in other parts of the world; studies in Ethiopia have shown similar results. Yet, it presents some very serious challenges ahead in order to achieve and clean and open defecation free India.

Why does partial use happen?

We have identified different factors associated with partial usage which are:

  • Social norms
  • Taboos, beliefs and prohibitions
  • Preferences and convenience
  • Age and disability
  • Gender and gender relations
  • Pressure on use
  • Full pits and fear of pits filling up
  • Dirt, smell, disgust, fears and cleaning
  • Design, construction and ownership

These factors may work in isolation but it is more likely a combination of these is to blame. Social norms and social pressures can be different for different members within a household which can be due to age, gender or disability. For example a study in Bangladesh found that elderly members continued to openly defecate despite others stopping were not severely criticised. Men may practice openly defecation when toilets are in high demand as it is more socially acceptable for a man than a woman.

So what?

Despite this being a new and emerging topic there are still preliminary conclusions that can be drawn:

  • Any intervention attempting to change social norms must make sure that open defecation by all community members, including men and the elderly, becomes socially unacceptable. Campaigns that focus on particular groups within a community run the risk of others who do not identify with messages continuing to defecate in the open.
  • This establishment of new and consistent social norms needs to be coupled with technologies that are accessible and affordable as well as socially and culturally acceptable for all. These will vary and will be dependent on physical and social context. Acceptability and affordability of maintenance and safe sludge and pit management options must also be considered.
  • Finally, this topic is something that should be given priority for rapid action research. Is this predominantly an Indian problem or does it challenge the sustainability of ODF communities in other countries?

We are in the early stages of exploring and learning about this and invite comment, criticism, correction and further insights on the work we have untaken so far. You are welcome to contact us about this topic.

Jamie Myers is a Research Officer with the CLTS Knowledge Hub at IDS.