Friday, July 22, 2016

Bringing safe water to school-children: The power of a united community

By Patricia Chourio

Mr. Chrea Song shows the school well built with funds 
raised by the community
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio

It is known that two heads are better than one, but when an entire community comes together to improve the lives of their children the chances of success are even greater. That’s exactly the case of the Kampong Thmar commune, located in Kampong Thom Province. Under the leadership of Mr. Chrea Song, a charismatic member of this commune who is in his 60s, people came together to mobilize resources for WASH facilities in the local primary school.

Mr. Song was born in Kampong Thom province to a very poor family. He was forced to drop out of school once he reached grade 7 because he cannot afford to continue. The expenditures were so steep, he had no other choice but to drop out.  Due to the circumstances he had to start working to help support his family. His first job was at the market selling food with his parents. His resourcefulness led him to create his own business and became a respected entrepreneur within the commune. Although he wasn’t able to stay in school he valued education very much. He always knew he wanted to give the children in his community the opportunities he didn’t have. “Because I didn’t go to school my opportunities were very limited, I felt the need to change this for the future of the children in my community, they deserve a better quality of life” says Mr. Song.

Years of hard work in his community led him to become involved in many advisory committees, including at two pagodas, a health centre and two schools, Kampong Thmar Primary school being one of them. For over 15 years Mr. Song has mobilized his community members to tackle issues affecting them, especially their children. Of these issues are health and sanitation. Song noticed that the primary school did not have a proper handwashing facility. Children would use a small container with water to wash their hands. The water was dirty and not all the children were able to wash their hands when they needed it.

To promote a healthy environment in the school, Mr. Song set out to inform his community members about the benefits of teaching children to wash their hands properly as well as good hygiene practices. He put emphasis on the fact that handwashing is the most cost effective way to prevent disease and the fact that a community is more likely to thrive when its children are healthy.

With financial support coming from the Department for International Development and technical support from UNICEF Cambodia in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to build group handwashing facilitiesMr. Song initiated his fundraising efforts to supplement this project. He asked his family members and friends to donate money to construct additional water sources to support the built handwashing facilities at the school. Additionally, he leveraged his involvement with the local pagodas to reach out to possible donors during their events.  
Mr. Song would go door to door around the village to talk to the families personally. By the end of three months he raised enough budget to build one well and three additional handwashing facilities located conveniently near the school’s restrooms, playground area and food station.

One of the handwashing facilities located near the food station 
at Kampong Thom Primary school
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio
There is a sense of pride from the students and teachers at Kampong Thmar primary school. The children are happy and playful. Before their class break, they wash their hands together, the older ones help the younger ones. They all take care of each other as if they were a family. Once the children wash their hands they carry on with their daily activities, but not without making sure the facilities are kept clean and tidy. There is no doubt this community is one happy family.

Students at Kampong Thmar primary school during their 
group handwashing activity
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio
Chun Vichethavy, is a 5th grader who takes handwashing very seriously. “Handwashing is important for me because I want to be a doctor one day and I need to stay healthy” she says. Her days are quite busy for an 11 year old. In the morning she helps her family sell food at the market, she then attends school in the afternoon, takes a short break and then goes back to school for Khmer lessons from 5-6pm. In the evening she goes back to the market with her parents to sell more food. Somehow, she even sneaks in some extra time to help her baby sister and her parents learn proper handwashing practices, the same ones she learned from her teacher at school. She shares that before the handwashing facilities were installed at the school she didn’t know the importance of handwashing. She now encourages her friends and family members to wash their hands often throughout the day.

Although improvement is being made towards access to clean water for everyone, there’s still a big gap to fill. Currently, only one in two Cambodians have access to a source of clean water and less than two in four have access to a toilet in rural area. UNICEF Cambodia is working with community members like Mr. Song, to raise awareness and leverage local resources to build and maintain facilities in rural areas around the country.

The majority of the households in Kampong Thmar commune have access to clean water. However, Mr. Song wants to make sure the system is as sustainable as possible. He would like to build deeper wells so that more families have access to clean water in the commune especially during dry season. He had initially thought that maintenance would be one of the areas of concern, but so far, community members continue to work together to make sure the facilities are well kept so children can enjoy them for a long period of time.

Chun Vichethavy (pictured right) with her best friend washing 
their hands at Kampong Thom Primary school
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio

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