A majority of people in Nepal do not have access to basic drinking water and sanitation facilities and lack awareness about alternatives. In some villages in Nepal, people do not feel comfortable using a latrine. “When we have land as big as the sky above us, are we rhinos or blue sheep to defecate in one spot?” is a commonly held belief. Tradition, for example, in many places doesnot allow a father-inlaw and daughter-in-law to use the same latrine. Given these conservative beliefs and practices—in tandem with the lack of sanitation facilities—many people die every day from water- borne diseases. Every year 15,000 children from Nepal die from these diseases, according to UNICEF. And their deaths happen quietly in villages without others taking notice.
This daily context of people’s lives explains, in part, why the media in Nepal have also not directed a lot of attention to sanitation issues. In fact, sanitation issues have always been considered a taboo subject, which people do not like talking or hearing much about. Until quite recently, sanitation, latrines and hand washing—all of these issues related to the use and cleanliness of water—were hardly reported on in the media. Instead, the headline news about politics, ongoing conflict, and social crimes is what sells newspapers.
It was in this context that in 2003 Nepal’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All (WASH) group was formed to look for various strategies to improve the status of sanitation and coordinate its campaign in Nepal. This group includes members from key organizations, such as the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage, Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Fund Development Board, WaterAid Nepal, UNICEF, World Health Organization, and Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH), a nongovernmental organization that has responsibility for carrying out the WASH activities in Nepal.
Nepal has committed to halving the proportion of people without access to sanitation by the year 2015. To meet this goal, approximately 14,000 latrines need to be constructed each month for the next 12 years. Clearly, if such a goal has any chance of being met, the media need to play a critical role in increasing awareness of these issues. To improve this likelihood, Nepal WASH group focused in 2004 on building strong partnerships with the local media and organized journalist orientation programs in three regions of Nepal (Central, Eastern and Mid-Western) to coincide with National Sanitation Week in March.
Seventy-four journalists, 35 percent of whom were female, participated in the programs. The purpose of these two-day orientations—with science and policy briefings by experts, field trips and discussions—was to sensitize and educate journalists about sanitation and hygiene issues with the hope of motivating them to write more about them. These talks and conversations focused on such subjects as the health impact of poor sanitation and linkages of gender and sanitation and gave journalists a platform from which to figure out what stories there were to be told about sanitation, hygiene and water. Story ideas about topics not being covered were presented, such as examining the condition of public toilets in Kathmandu and public provisions of latrines for women.
On a field visit, these journalists gained a better understanding of the actual sanitation situation in a rural community. One way they did this was to flag the feces they saw on the ground during a walk around the village. They placed bright colored flags to mark the spot, and at the end of the exercise many flags were visible. A calculation was then made to figure out how many kilograms of feces the village members produce, and subsequently can ingest, each year. Journalists came away from this exercise with a real sense of disgust as they realized, many for the first time, the real consequences related to the easy mobility of these many pieces of contamination. Stories these journalists wrote about the impact of this poor sanitation appeared in the local press the next morning.
Resource materials on sanitation and related issues were also given to the participants, including global and Nepalese facts, policy documents, lists of Web sites and references for further research reading, and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) media guide. On the second day journalists talked about what they’d seen and learned on their field trip. Many described how they’d not thought that a community’s sanitation situation could be a news item before they’d had this experience. Having it, they said, helped them realize the role they could play in informing people about these issues.
A Change in the News
As part of a journalism fellowship program, during the month of March reporters had articles about these issues published in various broadsheet and local newspapers. For the first time many of those who had participated in the orientation program began to write candidly about urine and feces. Headlines on their stories show how taboos surrounding these issues started to be broken down:
- Gents Urinating, Ladies Watching
- People Living in Mill Area Deprived of Toilets
- It’s Gone—The Compulsion of Climbing Trees to Defecate
- Children’s Whistles Encouraged Building of Toilets in the Village
- Daily Routine of Going to the River Carrying a Bag of Feces
During its public education campaign the WASH group in Nepal also commissioned and broadcast TV documentaries, comedy programs about these topics, and radio programs.
The journalists shared with each other and us some reasons why they think these issues have received such low coverage in the media. They cited their own lack of awareness as one reason and reiterated the view that coverage of politics, insurgency, violence and murder are seen as stories that sell newspapers. This means that to cover other issues, the journalists told us, they will earn less money. Sanitation issues—while important—don’t sell newspapers, journalists observed, unless a reporter can bring forth the human element of the suffering that arises for these problems. Even then, once their reporting is done, editors still need to be convinced to print them. And when editors don’t understand the significance of these issues, this creates problems in getting the stories published, or in having them featured prominently in the newspaper. (Some journalists suggested that editors should be invited to such orientations.)
From our perspective, the orientation and fellowship programs for journalists—and the awards for excellent coverage that WASH also gives—have been successful, cost-effective ways to encourage the media to cover sanitation issues. After we began these efforts, the coverage of sanitation issues markedly increased, and stories started to present the issues far more openly. The response from female journalists was particularly encouraging, and half of our awards for coverage went to women. This was a significant achievement considering that the media in Nepal is predominantly male.
To maintain the momentum, the WASH group established a feature news service called “Lekhmala” in partnership with a women’s media organization, Sancharika Samuha, to publish articles on gender and sanitation issues in various newspapers. And journalists have started to rely on NEWAH as a source for information about sanitation issues. NEWAH plans follow-up actions, including a news and policy interview show that is like “Meet the Press,” more orientation sessions, and more frequent briefings that can keep journalists informed about and motivated to write about sanitation issues.
Soniya Thapa, as Nepal WASH campaign secretary, coordinates the campaign’s activities. Bharat Adhikary, the campaign’s communication officer, and Anamika Singh, its documentation officer, contributed to the conception of this article.