Meet Madame Petit: DINEPA’s Director of Sanitation
During this Women’s History Month, we are celebrating the often unheard voices of Haitian women working in sanitation and celebrating those who were selected as 2023 Women in Sanitation nominees.
Recently we had the opportunity to speak with Edwige Petit, Director of Sanitation at the Haitian Sanitation Authority (DINEPA), about her life and her job and what it’s like to be a woman working in sanitation.
Interviewer: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Edwige: I am the head of sanitation at DINEPA. I am a Haitian citizen who has big dreams for my country. I am an advocate for the environment and also a mother who is working to leave a legacy for my children and for future generations.
My background is in architecture, urbanism and the environment. I am now working in sanitation and solid waste management. I am passionate about local development and am trying to sensitize and increase awareness to people in Haiti regarding solid waste, waste management and water in general. It is also important that I work to share my knowledge of these areas with others.
Interviewer: What is your role at DINEPA and what are your responsibilities?
Edwige: As the national head of sanitation, my primary responsibility is to formalize the sanitation sector. To do this we have to work with other public partners to combine the different sanitation sub sectors into one. I have been working for more than 10 years to ensure that the sector can be fully functional both at the operational level and in terms of regulatory compliance.
Interviewer: How did you begin working at DINEPA/ in sanitation?
Edwige: It’s a bit of an interesting story. I have long worked with MNEs, doctors and agronomists to write and evaluate projects, but I have always wanted to direct my work towards development and the environment. In 2007, I had the opportunity to work on a solid waste management project, which allowed us to build, design and develop our first waste management policy. As we were going to move forward in this process, the 2010 earthquake struck and Port au Prince ended up with over 1.5 million people living on the streets, bathing in the streets and mobile toilets scattered around pretty much everywhere. As a result, the government found itself in a situation where it was forced to manage massive amounts of sewage and feces.
It was during this crisis that I was asked to provide my support in the management of wastewater and feces. I told myself that I was going to leave my other activities for 6 months or maybe 1 year to help set up a structure and participate in its launch, after which I could continue my work of developing a waste management policy. Unfortunately, and fortunately, since 2011 I haven’t been able to leave the sanitation sector.
In short, I started working for DINEPA after the earthquake and I want to see a major improvement towards our goal of ending open defecation before I can leave the sanitation sector. Thus, the first objective is to set up a treatment system for wastewater and human waste. We have the first systems in Haiti and now we are advocating for the end of open defecation. I started in the sector in 2011 and 11 years later I’m still here!
Interviewer: What impact does SOIL have on communities in Haiti?
Edwige: A direct impact of SOIL’s work is to allow families (more than 2000!) to live with dignity because they have a toilet in an appropriate environment in or near their home. These families can also now protect themselves from things like diarrheal diseases. Beyond that direct impact, SOIL is moving the sanitation sector forward by talking openly and honestly about sanitation–which is not something a lot of people do. So SOIL offers families a dignified toilet and waste treatment service but also treats the waste collected, encompassing the entire sanitation chain and urging people to take another look at sanitation. Even if we cannot measure this impact, it is extraordinary.
Interviewer: Do you feel that working in sanitation is challenging or is any more challenging because you are a woman?
Edwige: This is a question that we discuss at the level of DINEPA, vis-à-vis the role of women in Haitian society. Here we say that women are the guardians of hygiene, so it is safe to say that women are the guardians of sanitation. Also, in general, in Haitian society women have a role of “poto mitan” (backbone) to achieve fixed objectives. Many women hold leadership positions in the sanitation sector. We are not in a situation where we are not heard. It is true that as managers, sometimes women do not always have access to reach desired ears. But so far, we have been able to be heard. If we take society into account, what would be interesting to see, given the role of women in our culture (and sanitation in particular), is if the voices of other women not working directly in sanitation are able to reach where they want it to.
Interviewer: What have you been able to learn during your time at DINEPA?
Edwige: There would not be enough time in this interview to talk about all that I have learned at the sector level during these 12 years! The richness of the partnerships, the knowledge acquired over the course of the exchanges and what it brought to me professionally and personally have been life-changing. Basically, these 12 years have reinforced my conviction that whatever change you want to bring to society, you have to make people responsible for this change. It’s true that infrastructure and funding help, but sanitation is above all a change in behavior, it’s an opportunity to combine human relations with infrastructure and technology. It pushes us to understand people, to understand their way of thinking and living, which helps us to understand the role and importance of people’s lifestyle as it relates to the level of sanitation in a country. One very important thing that I have learned during these past 12 years is the importance of people in the sanitation sector – progress is based on a change in behavior and is something that no infrastructure on its own can ensure.
Interviewer: Where do you hope to see Haiti in the next ten years?
Edwige: DINEPA has just laid out our strategy and our operational plan for the next 10 years. In 2012 we developed our 10-year plan where by 2022 we would end open defecation and 70% of the population would have a toilet. But currently we are not yet there.
In 10 years, if we manage to put our plan into action, if each mayor also commits to our plan at the level of the municipalities, we should achieve our objective which is to put an end to open defecation. In 10 years, we are hoping to see a drop in the rate of diarrheal diseases in Haiti as well as a population more aware of good hygiene practices. DINEPA would also like to build waste treatment stations in various places around the country and have clean toilets in all public areas. Above all we would like the society to think differently about sanitation.
Thank you to Madame Petit and her incredible insight and dedication to work to improve the sanitation sector in Haiti. We are so lucky to know her as a key partner and as an exemplary Haitian leader. Join us in sharing your congratulations with her on her 2023 Women in Sanitation nomination!
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