Preventing Public Urination in Bangladesh: A Strategic Blunder?

By Adnan R Amin

A video titled ‘Language Matters‘ has been making the rounds in Bangladeshi social-media circles. It explores the utility of Arabic warnings to ward off public urinators. The using of a religious misconception to prevent a social evil is clever. But what if it also reinforces and lends credence to that misconception?

To say that Bangladesh has inadequate public toilet facilities would be an understatement. There are a handful of public toilets in the country. In 2013, out of the 67 public toilets in Dhaka City, 5 were fully operational. These facilities have the daunting job of serving nearly 20 million residents and commuters. The toilets are virtually unusable due to lack of hygiene.They are virtually impossible for women to use. Less than half have running water. It’s no wonder that Bangladeshi men have grown up habituated to using drains, canals and corners for urination. Inexplicably, they will also urinate on ‘walls’, aiming at nonexistent drainage systems. The result is soiled sidewalks / footpaths, dreadful malodor and general unhygienic conditions for pedestrians.


Brainstorming on how to prevent this unhygienic behavior pattern, an unconventional solution to the challenge began to emerge, based on the country’s demographic characteristics. Bangladesh’s population is 91% Muslim. In most qualitative judgments, they may not be pious, ‘practicing’ Muslims, but they are certainly reluctant to invoke the wrath of the Lord. They obediently detest or protest scandalous comments about Islam and routinely debate the Muslimness of Qadianis. Dutifully, they hang pictures of the Ka’aba in their homes and shudder at every caricature of the Prophets. Islam is an important part of their lives and identities. For the “Language Matters” campaign, the insight was that ‘Arabic (the language of the Holy Qur’an and the mother-tongue of the Prophet Muhammad) is perceived as a holy language’. Grey Dhaka, the communication agency, began to toy with an idea: if the notice “Urination here is prohibited” – conventionally stenciled on walls in Bangla – were printed in Arabic, how would public urinators respond? The ministry and its agency have publicized a campaign video that encapsulates the campaign.

Bangladesh’s neighbor, India, has used images of gods & goddesses and other Hindu religious symbols to keep its walls stain-free (“Only God Can Stop Public Urination”). Borrowing from the same concept, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Religious Affairs demonstrated an openness to experimentation and innovation to defend the city walls. It managed to utilize people’s reverence of Islam in curbing negative behavior.


Behavior Change Communications (BCC), also known as Communications for Development (C4D), uses communications to foster positive behaviors. Bangladesh has been a pioneer in BCC, with landmark campaigns on oral rehydration, immunization and/or contraception still cited and replicated in international circles. But this latest MORA [Ministry  of Religious Affairs] venture falls a little short of expectations. It is easy to conclude that any measure that curbs the unhygienic practice is welcome. However, from the perspective of Behavior Change Communications and Social Marketing – the approach is quite flawed.

The using of a religious misconception (“Arabic is a holy language”) to prevent a social evil is clever. But it also reinforces and lends credence to that misconception, instead of dispelling it. One would think that for a ministry for religious affairs, dispelling religious misconceptions would outweigh protecting city walls. If there were funds available to the government, Dhaka’s City Corporations could’ve used them to create better facilities for women. Judging from the tactic and tone of this video, a reexamining of both government bodies’ priorities seem to be in order.

The video and its tactic don’t adequately address the social issue. The communication planner failed or neglected to identify that the challenge was not that people urinate on walls because they considered them unclean. They just have no option. So, while the campaign succeeds in driving some potential urinators away from certain walls, it doesn’t reveal that they are flocking to other walls in greater density. The need hasn’t subsided and the situation has not improved: though organizational reputations and shares on social-media might have.

This is an example of people doing the right thing, for the wrong reason. People’s decision, to leave the walls dry, is not an informed decision. The target audience has not been made aware of the evils or inappropriateness of public urination. They still don’t realize that it is the public nature of answering Nature’s Call that is the problem. Therefore, their motivation is not to stop public urination, but to not perform the act in the presence of something holy. They are acting on a misconception. Thus, this Arabic script tactic is, at best, a surface-scratching, proxy solution that treats the Symptom and not the Cause.

The approach fails to acknowledge the incontinence of sanitation-planning in Dhaka or to empathize with the daily suffering of commuters and outdoor professionals. The video seems to send a conspiratorial wink at its obviously savvy, English-speaking audience and say, “yes, we know Arabic is not holy. But instead of telling people that, let’s cultivate the misconception and see how these poor Muslims fall for our trick.” The video is intended for Dhaka’s English-speaking elites and international audiences, none of who, incidentally, are plagued by a lack of toilet facilities.


There is also a more concrete problem associated with the approach, which can potentially affect outcomes. A core assumption of the campaign is that people hold ‘Arabic’ to be a holy language. If that is so, then when people discover the meaning of the writing on the wall, they will feel duped (and there is no scenario where the meaning of the Arabic is not eventually deciphered). They will feel that their attachment to something spiritual – however misplaced or misguided – has been associated with urination and used to deceive them. Not only that: they will go back to the walls.

From a strategic point of view, the campaign doesn’t acknowledge that for the approach to be scalable, Dhaka City would have to be covered in Arabic script. But we’ll let that one pass (!). The campaign-planners have emulated India’s approach, but have ignored to research why the approach didn’t work in India (quick summary: in India, the urination continued, now on the faces of deities. Residents took to the Delhi High Court, which noted that it could not enforce a lock on every man’s zipper. Eventually, the residents were left scurrying to prevent any more religious pictures on walls).

The most fundamental weakness of the video, then, is that it fails to even target the issue, let alone engage it. It reinforces misconceptions or superstitions. Neither the situation, nor knowledge / attitudes have improved. All that, however, does not prevent the video from having ‘awards’ written all over it. The juries love simplistic, feel-good stories. If casually examined, the video starts to come across like a feel-good ‘see-what-we-did-there?’ gimmicky maneuver that understands neither the social malady, nor the inconvenienced commuters. In discounting that public urination is mostly an act-of-desperation-turned-to-habit, it lacks empathy. It distances itself from the people taking to the streets for livelihood and chuckles at how easily they were deceived. The ‘Language Matters’ video serves no one but its self.

The anti-urination campaign may garner some young fans, shares and awards – but it is unlikely to foster lasting behavior change: partly because the campaign uses negative emotions (e.g. fear, shame, confusion) to temporarily cap the behavior and mostly because, the money behind the campaign was not spent on a new public toilet facility.

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