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Mariam in Mali’s story of saving lives with sanitation

Dirty water causes dangerous diarrhoeal diseases. Tearfund helps communities become safer through improved sanitation.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 17 May 2024

Clear water runs through a pair of clean hands.

Clean water and good sanitation is vital to keep people safe from the dangers of waterborne diseases, such as diarrhoea and cholera. Credit: mrjn/Unsplash

Plastic waste, dead leaves and human excrement used to litter the walkways between houses and buildings in Mariam’s village in Mali. She describes the smell, particularly in the rainy season, as ‘unbearable’. She says, ‘It could take over the whole village!’

Mariam has lived in this village, Péné, in the commune of Koro, her whole life. Now, aged 42, she is married with ten children – three boys and seven girls. They’ve all struggled with health issues caused by the unsanitary conditions that have been a problem in the community for many years.

The dangers of diarrhoea, malaria and typhoid fever

‘There were frequent cases of diarrhoea, malaria and typhoid fever,’ Mariam tells us. ‘My children would all get sick. This prevented us from saving money for a long time because all the money was spent on caring for the children.’

Around the world, the number of people facing the dangerous impacts of poor sanitation is staggering. Diarrhoeal disease kills around 443,832 children each year – in war zones it causes more deaths than war itself.

And, as with Mariam’s family, a lack of proper sanitation facilities can keep families locked in cycles of disease and poverty.

Mariam and the big, healthy change

But, things have changed in the village of Péné – and Mariam herself has been a key part of this transformation.

In June 2023, a local Tearfund partner, the Evangelical Development Agency of Mali, started to run training and awareness sessions in the village about health and sanitation. As Mariam took part, she started to understand more fully the causes of the problem and how they can be managed. She realised that the solution lay in the hands of women like her.

‘A lack of proper sanitation facilities can keep families locked in cycles of disease and poverty.’

Women power!

Mariam started to get other women from the village involved and now, once a week, a group of women run awareness-raising days that they, themselves have set up. The group helps people in the wider community to understand the problem caused by poor sanitation and how they can prevent it.

The women explain to community members the harm caused by open defecation. This has led to a reduction in this harmful practice. They also collect all the plastic waste, which they then sell and use the money to support people most in need in their community.

Since the women started these weekly awareness-raising days, as well as implementing what they’ve understood in their own homes, Mariam says Péné village has become ‘cleaner and cleaner’. She tells us, ‘The village is now an attractive place to live! Children and adults are healthier and stronger and no longer ill all the time.’

Mariam and her group of awareness-raising women stand together in the sunshine for a photograph with the wheelbarrows they use to clean up their community.

Mariam and her group of WASH-awareness-raising women in Mali. Credit: Tearfund.

Issaï’s toilet: a place of privacy, dignity and safety

Issaï lives in another village in the same region which was also struggling with a hygiene problem. A shortage of toilets meant that many people had to resort to open defecation in the sparse bush. This forced young and old alike to walk far from the village to find enough cover to relieve themselves with any privacy.

Issaï says, ‘I am too old. To relieve myself, I cannot go very far into the bush and we are in a period of rain. There is water everywhere. Often the needs can come late at night when it's not safe for old people like me to go out.’ Added to the indignity of using the toilet in the open, not having a safe place to go carries a very real risk of harm for many people like Issaï.

As part of a programme to help the community improve sanitation and hygiene, Tearfund’s local partner built and restored latrines for many vulnerable households – including Issaï’s.

‘This latrine will bring me great relief as I no longer have to expose myself in the bush in front of people, or go out late at night and risk reptiles and other dangers. From now on I will relieve myself quietly at home, undisturbed without the whole village knowing.’
Issaï, Mali

Poor sanitation keeps people in poverty and girls at risk of SGBV*

Apart from the dangerous health problems having to go in the open causes for communities, the safety of girls, especially, is placed at risk. Not having a toilet in their home leaves girls vulnerable to attack. At school, if there are no facilities, life gets particularly difficult when girls have their period. As a result, many girls miss school. Some get so frustrated that they give up altogether. This lack of education keeps girls trapped in a cycle of poverty. Instead of the things that should be, it’s their futures that are going down the toilet.

But, thanks to the resulting increased productivity and lower health care costs, giving people access to toilets is a hugely cost-effective way to improve people’s lives.

Toilet Twinning making life safer, more dignified and productive

Toilet Twinning is one way Tearfund raises money to bring dignity, productivity and protection from diseases to communities around the world through supporting sanitation and hygiene work (WASH**). Since 2010, more than 190,000 toilets have been twinned, giving about 840,000 people in 50 countries access to safe sanitation. And we estimate that around 1 million people receive hygiene education each year thanks to the programmes that Toilet Twinning helps fund. It's an excellent so-loo-tion!


*What is SGBV?

Sexual and gender-based violence refers to a wide range of acts that violate people’s human rights, including the sexual abuse of children, sexual assault and harassment, domestic violence, rape and forced marriages. It includes any abusive act, attempted act or threat of a sexual, physical, emotional or economic nature directed at a person because of their gender identity using coercion, power/authority or force without consent/against their will having or likely to have harmful consequences.

**What is WASH?

WASH is the acronym commonly used to talk about provision of clean, safe water – both for drinking and for hygiene purposes – and sanitation provision (like building toilets etc) to keep people safe from waterborne diseases that can be deadly, particularly to young children.

Pray for…toilets!

    • Pray for all those people around the world who do not have access to clean water and sanitation. Ask that they will be kept safe from dangerous diarrhoeal diseases and that the necessary infrastructure will be put in place to provide communities with these necessities.
    • Lift up every toilet that has been twinned by Tearfund supporters. Ask that they will continue to be places of safety, protecting dignity and privacy, and making life better for the people that use them.
    • Pray for Tearfund and our partners to reach more communities like Mariam's needing sanitation awareness training and facilities. Ask that more people like Mariam will understand and pass on the message about the problems caused by lack of sanitation and how to prevent them.

Written by

Written by  Tarryn Pegna

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