Tuesday, March 15, 2016

It takes a village: Community volunteers help bring safe water and sanitation to schools

By Heng Santepheap

Access to safe water and sanitation is a basic human right and is vital for every child’s survival and healthy growth. On the occasion of World Water Day celebrated every year on 22 March, we share with you stories of how community members in Cambodia are working hard to make sure that children and their families have access to safe water.

Children enjoy a daily hand-washing activity with their friends
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Heng Santepheap

Prasat Sanlong primary school is located in rural Thnal village, down a bumpy, dirt road about 15 kilometres from the small town of Sautr Nikum. The school has existed since the 1960s and re-opened after the Khmer Rouge period in 1979 with a small shelter built by the community.

One of the students of that school was Mr. Suk Sou, now 61 years old and president of the school support committee (SSC). The SSC is a community volunteer group consisting of elders, respected people and local leaders whose job is to mobilize resources, such as contributions from parents and the community, to support the school.

“When I was a child studying in this primary school, there was only a small school building and no water or toilet facilities at all. I never had chance to wash my hands, use the toilet or drink water at school. I did not want my children to face the same difficulties.” Mr. Sou said.

Mr. Sou’s experience motivated him to join the SSC. He became an active member of the committee, then its president. Though he is busy, anytime the school needs him, he is there to help.

A seven-year-old girl tells her five-year-old brother how to wash
his hands with soap after using the toilet.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Heng Santepheap

After more than 50 years, Mr Sou has seen many changes at the school. A Belgian NGO built a new school with the first toilet block in 2004. However, four toilets were not enough to accommodate more than 400 students, leading many students to practice open defecation at school. This bad practice led to children being vulnerable to diseases, particularly diarrhoea.  

From mid-2014, things changed significantly for the better. Prasat Sanlong is one of 12 rural and peri-urban schools that were assisted by Germany through a UNICEF Cambodia supported project between 2013 and 2015. The project was not just about providing facilities such as toilets, water supply, hand washing stations and water filters. It also built the capacity of school management and the SSC on planning, operation and maintenance of WASH facilities, and how to mobilize support from the community.

Health and hygiene education were also promoted at supported schools through social activities, classroom teaching and school gatherings.

Children now wash their hands in a group every day during break time from 8:30am-8:45am. This group activity creates peer pressure to wash hands with soap. When children learn something like this and create a culture of good hygiene at an early age, the practice will stay with them for the rest of their lives. 

Mr. Suk Sou, President of the SSC
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Heng Santepheap

“Before, children did not have enough facilities and received little health and hygiene education at schools, and I am now proud to see all school children practicing hand washing with soap, using clean toilets and drinking safe water at school with the facilities provided by the project,” Mr. Sou said. “These good practices are now spreading in the communities as well. I rarely hear about diarrhoea cases in my community anymore,” he added.

The project provided an opportunity for the school management and the SSC to join an exchange visit to a model school supported by UNICEF/BORDA. This experience encouraged the school to view WASH as a high priority.

The SSC plays a critical role in mobilizing resources in the community to support the school. For example, in-kind contributions from the community could be in the form manual labour to help the school repair minor problems with WASH facilities or school infrastructure.

Ms. Tes Sina, the school director, said the SCC was an essential part of school life. “Without the support of the SSC, the school could not keep all these facilities functioning. We have very limited budget from the Government,” Ms. Tes said. “Every time the school needs support from the SSC, Mr. Sou is always here with us to discuss the issues, find solutions and provide necessary support.”

Ms. Tes Sina, School Director
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Heng Santepheap

“He helps mobilize resources and contributions from the community to support our school,” she said. Contributions from the community enable the school to supply enough soap, and to cover the cost of daily operation and maintenance of these facilities.

Mr. Sou said it was important for parents to see the facilities first-hand. “Bringing parents and the community to visit the school or to join any meeting in the school allows them to see their children benefiting from the WASH facilities and to make them realize that these facilities in school are critical for their children’s health,” he said. “This can be key factor to motivate them to continue to support the school. My only wish is to see all children in my community are healthy and well educated,” he added.

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