WASH Out Sickness


ACHARBUNIA, Bangladesh -- The International Organization for Migration has boosted the number of wells, latrines and washing facilities in this sleepy fishing village in southeast Bangladesh to help the local community cope with an influx in Undocumented Myanmar Nationals. In the process, it’s also helping local partners educate villagers about the health risks associated with early marriage.

Acharbunia, located just 9 kilometers from the border with Myanmar, has faced enormous pressure on its scant water supply due to 74,000 Undocumented Myanmar Nationals who have crossed the Naf river since October to escape violence in the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar. This fishing village has accepted 50 families from Myanmar over the last three to four months,  increasing the total number of households in the village by 26% to 240, according to village leader Abu Taher, who has only one name. “They’re all Muslim so we accepted them,” said another village leader Mahamuda Begum. “If I save them, God or other people will save my children,” she added.

IOM’s WASH Sanitation and Hygiene division or WASH has helped this remote village of makeshift bamboo huts and fishnet walls cope with the sudden population surge by installing 10 deep wells, 23 platforms around existing wells, four community latrines, 10 household latrines, and 8 bathing cubicles for wash facilities. This has helped reduce the incidence of diarrhea and typhoid, three village leaders interviewed by IOM said.

Ms. Begum, 42 said there have only been a few diarrhea cases in the community recently compared with the days prior to IOM’s arrival when diarrhea and typhoid outbreaks were common. She had been personally affected  having lost one of her children to diarrhea, prior to IOM’s intervention.

Access to clean water has also made a difference, particularly in pregnant women’s lives, Ms. Begum’s daughter, Hasina Begum, said.  Ms. Begum, also a village leader, believes she gave early birth to a stillborn baby of eight months due to fact that she had to carry two 15-liter-water jars twice a day to her home from a  polluted water source a kilometer away. “You could see worms in the water,” she noted.

In addition to new wells and latrines, IOM has also worked to increase  the community’s understanding about the importance of hygiene: wearing shoes when using latrines, washing hands and body, and maintaining wells, toilets and washing facilities clean. In the process it has also educated villagers about the health risks associated with early marriage.

“When we conduct hygiene sessions, we tell the community that women shouldn’t marry young,” said IOM’s water, sanitation and hygiene or WaSh project assistant, Machano who also goes by only one name. “We trust and believe in IOM,” said 63 year old village leader Mr.Taher, who moved to Acharbunia from Myanmar eight years ago.  Ms Begum and her daughter, both village natives, also agreed, believing such education to be IOM’s greatest contribution to their small community.

Early marriage is endemic to many people’s lives in the region’s makeshift settlements, said Sharmin Afrose, IOM’s field assistant on gender based violence and protection issues at Kutupalong, the largest of the four camps.  She has encountered parents who have married daughters as young as 13 with men as old as 40, sometimes 50 years old.

Community members see early marriage as a way to mitigate poverty by reducing the number of mouths a family needs to feed. It also ensures the security of adolescent daughters since married women are less likely to be sexually preyed upon by adolescent men in these makeshift camps bereft of policing.

Early marriage, however, presents health risks to families that far outweigh the perceived benefits, said Niranta Das, 31, the head doctor of the IOM’s largest clinic in Leda, the region’s second largest makeshift camps.  Early marriage leads to early pregnancy which creates health complications for both mother and child, he noted. For instance, young pregnant women have a greater chance of dying from hemorrhaging at birth than a mature women because their bodies are less developed. Young pregnant women also suffer from malnourishment due to the competing needs of their own developing bodies and those of their babies. This leads to stunted body development for women and low IQs, mental disabilities and even sometimes death for babies that are born malnourished. Such deaths lead to post-mordem psychosis and even depression among younger women. Older women, by contrast are more mature and therefore better equipped to deal with post-mordem psychosis, said Dr. Das.

To be sure, it’s hard to determine the degree to which IOM’s education about early marriage has reduced children’s deaths ---many other IOM interventions such pre-natal care and clinic-based births also play a factor. But the village leaders all agreed on one point: the combination of all of WaSH’s programs has improved their community’s well-being, and in the process reduced child mortality.

“Thank you IOM for all your help,” said Mr. Taher. “I hope that IOM will work more with us. “We don’t want IOM to leave,” he added.  Hasina Begum  agreed, adding that “I expect IOM to stay for a long time.”

IOM has no plans to leave the displaced families. In fact it’s decided to install 30 deep wells in the neighboring villages of Shilkali and Monkali just in case more Myanmar people cross the border..

We prefer to be prepared, said IOM’s WaSH national program officer Mohammad Mizanur Rahman. They “were using contaminated water and now they’re using clean water.”

-Write to Alex MacDonald at amacdon@gmail.com and Ashutosh Kamakar akarmakar@iom.int