Meet Zainabu Abubakar -UNICEF’s ‘Iron Lady’ of water and sanitation from BAKORI LG

World Toilet Day is marked every year on 19 November as a way to raise awareness and break taboos around toilets and sanitation. This year, UNICEF is celebrating Toilet Heroes– the children and adults who are making an impact in their communities by demanding toilets and improved sanitation.

In Nigeria’s rural communities, open defecation is a common problem, creating serious public health risks. Learn how Zainabu Abubaker, who leads the water and sanitation department in her local government, has helped her community become almost entirely open defecation free.

“They call me the Iron Lady, I don’t know why,” laughs Zainabu Abubakar. “I’m not ferocious or anything, I’m just doing my job.”

Zainabu is a mother of four living in Katsina State in northern Nigeria. Back in 2009, the State Governor appointed her to become the Director of the newly formed Local Government Area (LGA) Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Department in Bakori, an unusual move in a region which has very few female decision makers.

“I studied nursing back in college because I was always really passionate about improving community health – especially for women and children. This was the perfect role for me,” she says.

Zainabu’s job is particularly important in a country like Nigeria. According to the 2013 National Demographic Health Survey, 28.7 per cent of Nigeria’s population practised open defecation, while another 37.3 per cent was using unimproved latrines.

Zainabu works long hours and manages a team of 96 staff – among the largest WASH departments in the country. But it hasn’t always been this way. “We started out as a really small team with not much money, but we fought hard to get both the staff and budget required. It took a lot of work, but luckily our Governor was really supportive. He trusted that once we got the money we would get the results. We made sure that we didn’t disappoint him.”

Since then, Zainabu and her team have gone on to roll out an extensive Water and Sanitation programme in the district. One of the first initiatives to be introduced was Community-led Total Sanitation (CLTS). Back in 2009, it was considered a new and innovative approach, inspiring communities to construct their own latrines and eliminate the practice of open defecation – a common problem, particularly in rural areas. The ongoing SHAWN II project (Sanitation, Hygiene and Water in Nigeria) is being run in collaboration with UNICEF and NGO partners, with funding from UK Aid.

In less than six years, almost 90 per cent of Bakori’s communities have now been certified Open Defecation Free (ODF). This also means that residents practise handwashing and have access to safe water through the installation of new water points.

“CLTS is something that I am most proud of. It’s doing really well, you can really see a difference in the communities – diarrhoea and vomiting have decreased drastically in the last few years. When I visit the ODF communities, this is one of the first things they always tell me.”

As behaviour change is a long-term process, Ward Health Officers visit communities every few weeks to check on their progress. Reports are then carefully vetted by Zainabu’s team. “I really keep track of what’s happening at the community level – I know all the communities and I’m lucky because I know I have a great team who are supporting them.”

Despite the progress made, Zainabu still faces challenges on a daily basis. “Sometimes it’s hard being a female manager,” she says. “It’s just how it is up here, but I’m an outspoken person, I can handle it. I hope it will help to inspire other women to become leaders within the Government too. There needs to be more of us,” she smiles. “It’s difficult, but I know what I believe in and I’m fighting to do what is right for the communities.”

Zainabu ultimately hopes that other Councils will follow Bakori Government’s lead. “There’s still much to be done in Nigeria,” she says. “I hope other Councils will also be able to grow full-fledged Water and Sanitation Departments like ours, it makes such a difference as it means we have enough staff and resources to implement a big programme. At the end of the day, it’s political will and hard work that really makes all the difference. With that, I believe anything is possible.”

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