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For more than half a century, Bun Yon, a 62-year-old villager in Kampong Cham province’s Sdao commune, has lived a life without a toilet.
“My neighbours and I had always relieved ourselves in the bush or at the riverbank,” he says. “It was just our way of life.”
However, Yon says his shameful early morning routine has now become a thing of the past.
“After most people in my village had their own toilets, I also wanted to have my own,” he says. “But, I didn’t have any money.”
Yon says he had received a toilet bowl and some concrete storage rings from the commune authority as part of the effort to implement the “open defecation free” policy.
But, he says he still needed at least $500 more to pay for the building of a brick wall and putting in the roof with iron sheets.
“Luckily, one of my neighbours, had the basic skill and offered to help me build it for free,” he says. “But, he was born as a mentally challenged person.”
However, Yon was happy to accept his help.
“I was cooking lunch when he was building the wall,” Yon says. “He almost forgot to leave a space for a door. He is skillful but needs guidance.”
Later in the morning, Yon says another neighbour came to help put in the door and the roof. A relatively decent toilet was built and it was the end of Yon’s life-long open defecation.
Nevertheless, Yon was not the only villager in Sdao commune, some 45 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh, who had tried to live a more civilised world in terms of relieving oneself.
According to Lay Senghong, chief of Sdao commune, around 15 percent of more than 6,000 people living in his commune are still living without decent toilets.
“Many of these people live on the bank of the Mekong River,” he says. “When the riverbank collapsed into the river, they moved inland and needed to build new toilets.”
Senghong says some newly married couples who built new houses also constructed toilets after they moved out of their parents’ houses.
“For poor families, the commune authority gives them a toilet bowl and four concrete rings to build the facility,” he says. “But, some people don’t have money to build a complete toilet.”
Im Sreyleak, a 33-year-old mother of three, says she received a toilet bowl and the concrete rings from the commune authority a long time ago and has just decided to build a proper toilet with a small loan from a micro-finance institution.
“In the past, there were a lot of forests and it was easy to find a place to relieve yourself,” she says. “Now, there is no more forest behind the village.”
Sreyleak says she understands the importance of having a proper toilet and the unhealthy living caused by open defecation.
“My daughter has been sick a lot with diarrhea,” she says. “I think maybe it is because she has been infected with microbes from pooing in the open field.”
Likewise, Chum Vireak, a 35-year-old construction worker who has recently moved to live in Sdao commune, says his house still does not have a toilet for his family with two children.
“When we need to relieve ourselves, we just dig a hole near the riverbank,” he says, adding that he knows it is not environmentally healthy to drop the “calling cards” at the riverfront.
Vireak says he also wants to have a proper toilet and hopes he can receive assistance from the commune authority.
“We use water from the river,” he says. “So, it is not good that we relieve ourselves near the river.”
Chamroeun Nira, a 25-year-old new mother who lives in the same commune about 500 metres upstream from where Vireak’s house is, says she also used to practice open defecation before she got married a few years ago.
“We used to go to the bush behind the village,” she says. “Now, they have built many graves and tombs there.”
Nira says she was afraid of ghosts and did not want to have open defecation near the graveyard anymore. She says she pleaded with her parents to build a proper toilet before her wedding.
“I think it is disrespectful to poo near the graves and tombs,” she says, adding that she would show a clean pair of heels after relieving herself there.
Nira says she is happy that she and her family no longer have to practice open defecation behind her village near the graveyard.
“Now, we are living a more healthy life after having a proper toilet,” she says.
Indeed, most people in the Sdao commune are not as frequently sick as before after they have built proper toilets and stopped open defecation.
“Toilets have helped improve people’s health,” says Try Pao, head of Sdao Commune Health Center.
He says many people in his commune used to have illnesses associated with unhealthy living and open defecation. Pao says, however, that he is glad that people understand the benefit of living in a healthy environment free from illnesses.
“Eating clean, sleeping clean, and living clean helps protect people from getting sick with illnesses like diarrhea, typhoid, and those caused by waterborne parasites,” he says.
According to UNICEF, providing children with clean drinking water and adequate toilets, and instilling in them the need to wash their hands with soap and water, are the most effective ways of saving their lives and ensuring they develop into healthy adults.
“Diarrhea, which often results from poor sanitation and hygiene, is a major cause of children’s illnesses, including stunting and impaired brain development,” says its website.
It says: “Despite improvements in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) systems and practices, Cambodia has the highest rate of open defecation in the region, with [many] poorest rural Cambodians defecating out in fields, in open bodies of water, or other open spaces, rather than using a toilet.”
UNICEF says children continue to be stunted and to die from preventable sanitation- and water-related causes, because they do not have access to clean water, toilets, and hand-washing facilities in their communities and schools.
“Particularly in rural areas, people have very limited understanding of the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene,” it says.
Nevertheless, people in Kampong Cham province’s Sdao commune, like Bun Yon have shown that with a little bit of help, poor rural Cambodians will abandon open defecation and start living a more healthy and civilised life with decent toilets.
“Honestly, nothing is more shameful than to poo in the open field,” he says. “A toilet can restore our dignity.”