Water and Sanitation for all - understanding perspectives for inclusive WASH in Vanuatu

A man in a wheelchair is speaking to an audience in a hall, there are large photos around him for an exhibition about "Photo Voice"

Nineteen year old James is a passionate advocate for people with disabilities, whose voices all too often go unheard when it comes to accessing Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). (World Vision Vanuatu)


"I am proud of the man my son has become," says Isabel of her grandson James, with tears in her eyes.


Isabel and James have been through a lot, but what has never wavered, has been their love and support for one another. James was born paralysed from the waist down which has made life more difficult in a country like Vanuatu where there is often a lack of understanding and misconception around disability, and certainly a lack of disability accessible infrastructure and opportunities. When James was younger, he was often bullied and even physically and verbally abused for being different.


“I couldn’t defend James," recalls Isabel, "so I tried to help him by comforting him, providing for him and keeping him away from people or places where I knew he would get hurt."


Despite these challenges, James is full of enthusiasm for life and slowly, perceptions are changing in Vanuatu. James is an active and much-loved member of the Luganville community, he has been able to access education opportunities, he is a student at the local agricultural college in Santo, he loves music and he considers his PETCART (assistive mobility device) his best friend thanks to all that it allows him to do! For him, it represents his journey to knowing his rights. As James has grown older, he has also become a passionate advocate for people with a disability and their rights.


But James' story is the exception, not the rule in Vanuatu, for many others living with a disability, their story is not so happy. Ongoing bullying and discrimination was a far more common among people with disabilities who were surveyed as part of World Vision and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Water, Women, Disability study.


Supported by the Australian Government, through their Water for Women project, Laetem Dak Kona, World Vision and LSHTM completed this comprehensive study - the first of its kind in Vanuatu - in collaboration with Vanuatu National Statistics Office, Ministry of Justice and Community Services, Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Association (VDPA) and Vanuatu Society for People with Disability (VSPD).


We cannot achieve SDG6 - water and sanitation for all if we are leaving people behind. Historically, those most marginalised in a community have not been considered when planning and implementing WASH. Water for Women seeks to change this by bringing the voices of the marginalised to the centre of the planning process. It is so important to hear diverse voices for more effective and sustainable WASH outcomes.


That is why this study has been so important - Laetam Dak Kona means shining a light into dark corners, and that is exactly what this study has done. It found that for people with disabilities in Sanma and Torba province, access to assistive technology, rehabilitation and other services was low. Less than 10% had access to any type of assistive device/technology, or had received rehabilitation, while less than 20% of people with disabilities had ever heard of rehabilitation or assistive device services. This is in stark contrast to James who's assistive device has been a key enabler in his ability to access water, a toilet and engage with his community.


Indicative of the importance of accessing assistive devices and WASH, the study also found that 10 percent of people with disabilities couldn’t access water when they needed too (compared to 1 percent of people without disabilities), with not being able to reach the water or see the container reported as the two biggest barriers.


Understanding the barriers faced by people with disabilities can help World Vision and other practitioners implement better solutions for the communities in which they are working.


James has contributed greatly to the project so far, he was even invited to speak at the launch of the report, where a photo voice exhibition was on display - an initiative that formed part of the study. Photo voice is an empowering qualitative research tool where those involved in the research document their experience through taking or directing their own photos and providing their own captions about their photos. Some of James' own photos were included in the exhibition.

A man in a wheelchair with his back to the camera faces toilets that are not disability accessible to draw attention to this issue

"Toilets need to be inclusive," a photo from the photo voice exhibition. See more.


At the event, James spoke passionately about the importance of disability rights and accessibility in Vanuatu. He also spoke about how lucky he felt for the support he had received throughout his life that allowed him to be empowered to know his rights and access opportunities. Through the work of World Vision and the dedication of people like James, we are working to ensure that more people with disabilities can feel empowered, supported and are able to thrive through WASH in Vanuatu.


Cohesive and socially inclusive communities are naturally more resilient, including to shocks from a changing climate and they are more likely to have effective and sustainable outcomes in WASH. 


The value of water is about much more than its price – in communities, households, schools and workplaces, water means health, hygiene, dignity, productivity and more.


Throughout March, for International Women's Day and World Water Day, we are celebrating the value of women and the value of water. Both are critical to building healthy and climate-resilient communities. 


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