Toilets in Haiti: the importance of social and cultural factors in construction and use

Published: 18 November 2013 10:37 CET

By Siobhan Kennedy, IFRC, Haiti

Toilets, and our relationship with them, are not as straightforward as they may seem. Every country has its own social and cultural norms dictating what constitutes a ‘normal’ toilet: sit-down or squat, water-sealing or composting, flush or long-drop. Understanding what is considered acceptable is crucial in developing effective sanitation programmes.

Recognising the need to improve knowledge in this area, in September 2012 the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) began conducting research into the influence of social and cultural factors on toilet construction and use in Haiti. The research was undertaken in both the urban and rural areas of Haiti, over the course of three months. As the Haitian government is implementing a strategy of moving away from subsidised construction of toilets towards more sustainable homeowner-driven projects, the IFRC’s research proved to be an important initial step towards understanding the best way of fitting Red Cross household sanitation activities within this strategy.  

Seeking to identify the most important factors about building and using household toilets in Haiti, the research discovered a number of interesting points. In many rural areas, for example, open defecation is considered a normal part of life, and many Haitians dislike pit latrines, viewing them as being smelly and dirty. “The pit latrine can be very nice and a beautiful space, before you start to use it,” said one resident of Artibonite. “So you do not want to use it.”   

“The main issue is changing people’s mentality,” explained one IFRC community mobiliser. “Traditionally, people are used to going to the field. There is a need to change this behaviour, but it takes time.”

Whilst fear of cholera and other water-borne diseases was the most common reason people gave for installing a toilet in their homes, the social status that came with having a modern household toilet for guests was considered almost equally important. As one research participant in Leogane described, having a toilet at home is an indication that ‘you are ready to receive guests.’

Social pressures around toilet construction are often overlooked. For example, many families without a household toilet can feel embarrassed if they do not have one, and some people can be jealous of those who do.

The research also found there was a clear understanding in many communities that the health benefits of constructing and using a toilet could be felt only if the whole community owned and used their own toilets. In one area, for example, toilets were described as being a way of development for the community.

Due to the success of this pilot, in July 2013 the IFRC began development of a social and cultural assessment tool for all Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programming, in partnership with Groupe URD. Currently in its final approval stages, the tools will be available to WASH teams from all organisations to support programme design and implementation, and to ensure behaviour-changing communications campaigns efficiently address the social and cultural factors influencing decisions made about toilet construction and use.

If successful, it will be rolled out to benefit  different communities with equally different norms, needs and expectations throughout the world.  

Three times more people around the world live without adequate sanitation resources than without access to clean water, yet sanitation receives only 27 per cent of global funding in this area.

The IFRC is helping to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases by working towards improving sanitation for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who have inadequate resources. To have even a chance of achieving this, however, we must address the imbalance between water and sanitation. Both are a crucial part of promoting community health, resilience and human dignity, as well as being basic human rights.

Water and sanitation at IFRC