After a 2.5 hour journey from Bahir Dar town, capital of Amhara region, we were greeted by community representatives of the Shimagle Giorgis kebele, home to over 7,000 rural dwellers. A team of government officials and SNV staff visited the kebele to view progress being made to improve sanitation and hygiene practises. The visit was part of the SNV SSH4A learning event “Chasing the SDGs: Scale, Sustainability and New Frontiers in Rural Sanitation and Hygiene”.
Upon arrival, our team was led to the main field for a traditional coffee ceremony. At the center of the field was a yellow flag standing high and mighty – signifying that the kebele was just one step away from securing the coveted green open defecation free (ODF) marker flag.
Since implementing the UKAID-funded Sustainable Sanitation and Hygiene for All Results Programme in 2017 – under the umbrella of the government’s One WASH National Program – the community has been accelerating efforts to end open defecation (OD).
“Initially, we gave ourselves a deadline of June 2018 to end OD. Today, we’re proud to say that we are likely to achieve ODF status two months earlier than expected” said the kebele’s health extension worker.
A well-orchestrated governance system
Esteem, competition and a recognition system fuel the kebele’s ambition to reach ODF status.
The government-initiated flag marking system, for example, evokes this healthy competition among kebeles. Each coloured flag represents a milestone which is independently changed and verified by the Woreda WASH team . A green flag is acquired when the community is Open Defecation Free (ODF), and when there is presence of handwashing facilities, communal latrines for passers-by, and latrines in all institutional areas (e.g., schools). Verification processes take place each week, and are conducted by school children and the Woreda WASH team.
Members of the community are mobilised to participate in Women’s and Men’s Development Armies: sex-segregated groups tasked to help neighbours climb the “sanitation ladder” through education and mentorship. Among others, their tasks range from promoting the health benefits of sanitation, teaching households about latrines and handwashing facility construction, and serving as mediators when household disputes over sanitation arise. Members of best-performing households with latrines that meet the government’s 12-point criteria system are invited to take leadership positions within these community committees.
Two health extension workers are designated per kebele to deliver to the area’s full health extension package  which includes a hygiene and environmental health component. The position is a paid governmental job – often held by a woman – and both are kebele residents.
So far, results of this collaborative effort is evident. Leaders of the village WASH Committee, and the Women and Men’s Development Armies shared that a verification process to qualify for the green flag is underway. In total, 98% of all households have already received the government’s “stamp of approval” for improved latrine access. The remaining 2% – after the verification process – will soon join their ranks.
Beyond ODF certification
Amidst the kebele’s euphoria, some members recognise that stopping at the achievement of open defecation is not an option. Our team also observed that the district will benefit from heightened hygiene knowledge and positive hygiene behaviour.
Within the Village WASH Committee, discussions to upgrade latrine quality through the sale of crops and agricultural products have begun. In addition to the kebele’s zeal for improvements, encouraging signs of leadership parity between men and women provide a much-needed boost to take the entire kebele higher up the sanitation ladder. With more women holding leadership positions, the specific sanitation needs of girls and women are taken into account, and the capacity of women to undertake jobs or tasks regarded historically as a “man’s job” is strengthened.
“Women are key actors for sanitation. Through women’s involvement, we can successfully (reach) the SDGs,” said Abiy Girma, National WASH Coordination Office Coordinator of the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity.
To illustrate this, in showing off her newly-constructed 5-month old latrine, female-headed household beneficiary Agin Ben said: “I constructed my own latrine with my brother’s and father’s support. Here women and men are equal.”
 This year’s rural sanitation learning event was hosted by SNV in Ethiopia, and gathered 70 participants representing governments, CSOs and SNV offices across Africa, Asia and Central America.
 As far as the colour coding system goes, a red flag indicates high levels of OD practice in the kebele; yellow shows few households still practice OD; green shows no evidence of OD practice; and white flags – the highest level – expresses that hygienic behaviour (in terms of OD), handwashing with soap, and safe water handling and treatment practice all occur at household level.
 There are three components in the government’s Health Extension Package: hygiene and environmental health; disease prevention; and maternal and child health service. Seven sub-packages comprise the hygiene and environmental health component. These are: healthy housing, household toilets and handwashing, safe water storage and treatment, solid waste management, liquid waste management, separated kitchen with improved stoves, and separated animal shelters from the main house.