Monks playing a new role in Cambodia: promoting sanitation & hygiene

August 2017


Religion in Cambodia has a cardinal influence on the thoughts and behaviour of huge numbers of people. Religious leaders can help galvanise communities to take positive actions, including improving their sanitation and hygiene. Recognising the opportunity work with religious leaders to reach communities with improved sanitation, the Integrated Nutrition, Hygiene, and Sanitation (NOURISH) project (funded by USAID and implemented by Save the Children and SNV) is working with Buddhist monks to motivate and mobilise communities to adopt proper sanitation and hygiene practices.

The (NOURISH) project (2014-2019) works with the Royal Government of Cambodia to reduce childhood stunting through multi-sectoral interventions in health, water, hygiene, sanitation (WASH) and agriculture. The project operates in three of Cambodia’s lowest-income provinces: Battambang, Pursat, and Siem Reap. To improve the current sanitation and hygiene practices in the project-supported areas, NOURISH is fully aligned with Cambodia’s National WASH Strategy and Action Plan, and works with both the public and private sectors, as well as the local NGO community. One of NOURISH’s main goals is to build the capacity of local stakeholders to create demand for improved sanitation at the village level, thereby supporting the villages to make positive sanitation changes with themselves.

According to the Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey of 2014, 60% of rural households in Cambodia lacked access to improved latrines, and 29% of young children’s faeces were not disposed of hygienically. Poor sanitation practices, including open defecation in particular, contribute to the prevalence of diarrhoea among rural households. A vicious cycle exists between diarrhoea and undernutrition, contributing to childhood stunting, the most common form of malnutrition in Cambodia, which leads to the diminished growth and development of children.

To help communities within the project’s target districts eliminate open defecation, NOURISH is applying Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) in more than 370 villages. CLTS is a globally recognised, innovative methodology for mobilising communities to become their own drivers of improving sanitation. CLTS supports communities to create and sustain demand for improved sanitation and hygiene infrastructure (latrines and hand-washing stations) and habits. Communities then self-monitor instances of open defecation and encourage change from within themselves to achieve full sanitation coverage and an open-defecation free (ODF) status.

As part of its CLTS efforts, NOURISH initiated a Training of Trainers (ToT) programme for Buddhist monks in all three of the project’s provinces, supporting them to mobilise stakeholders in different roles to support communities to adopt proper sanitation. The project also promoted sanitation directly to communities through the monks of 30 pagodas throughout these three provinces.

Monk Mr. Pen Phanna is the Chao Athika Vat (or Chief of Monks) at the Ty Setha Ram pagoda in Prey Srakum village, Sya commune, and a participant in the NOURISH-led Training of Trainers programme. Since his involvement with NOURISH, Monk Mr. Pen Phanna has been teaching community members about the importance of sanitation and hygiene at the village and commune levels as part of religious gatherings and sermons. Prey Srakum village has 135 families comprising 114 households. Prior to NOURISH’s demand-generation activities, the village had a sanitation coverage of only 24.5%, meaning three-quarters of the village had no access to sanitary latrines. As a result of NOURISH’s activities, including working with monks like Mr. Pen Phanna, the sanitation coverage in Prey Srakum village has increased to 78.95%.

Monk Mr. Pen Phanna explains the importance of sanitation at a village gathering

“I am happy to be involved with this programme because it is important that people understand the need for sanitation facilities and start building them,” Monk Mr. Pen Phanna said. “I have decided that the money that is donated by community members to the pagodas is to be used to help poor households who cannot afford to buy latrines to buy the same. Or this contribution can also go towards payment for labour for constructing latrines for poor households. I have been supporting poor households to build underground latrine structures using the pagoda contribution since my association with the NOURISH project.”

Through these efforts, NOURISH has engaged religious leaders as practicing development actors, who provide substantive inputs on what sanitation priorities should be, and how best to accomplish these priorities in the communities that they serve.

In Prey Srakum, as well as in the more than 370 villages that NOURISH supports, the project will continue efforts including CLTS to help these villages achieve 100% sanitation coverage and an open-defecation free status. Working with monks in their new role of promoting sanitation and hygiene will be a critical component to reaching to this goal.