Thursday, December 20, 2018

Water, sanitation and hygiene facilities create a safe environment for children to learn

By Sovath Ngin

Schoolgirls at Trapaing Seika primary school.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Sovath Ngin
Prey Veng, Cambodia, December 2018: In 2004 Trapaing Seika primary school was a healthy environment where, thanks to efforts by UNICEF and its partner Aeon, through the Japan Committee for UNICEF, children had access to two toilet blocks with six toilets. But by 2008, the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities had fallen into disrepair and the children had to practice open defecation.

An unsafe tube well at the school meant that students who drank the unfiltered water began suffering from diarrhoea and were not able to go to school. Only 20 per cent of children brought water from home.

“The well was broken most of the time and the path to the lake was too slippery for children to go and get water,” said school director Khi Samnang. “We also did not have enough budget to buy water,” he explained.

Grade 5 student, Kimhong, said she and her friends had to go home to use the toilet. “I had to ride my bicycle for 30 minutes to poop in my toilet at home,” the 11-year-old said.

Kimhong was one of many students who missed at least one hour of school each day to go home to defecate. Those who stayed at school practiced open defecation behind the unusable toilet block at school.

“When the toilets were not working, we pooped outside behind the toilet blocks,” said Ron Reak, 8, while playing with his friends in the playground.

Ron Reak (middle) and his friends in the playground.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Sovath Ngin

According to the World Health Organization, in 2018 the use of unimproved sanitation, drinking unsafe water and poor hygiene practices were responsible for 4 per cent of all deaths and 5.7 per cent of all disabilities worldwide. But having access to basic sanitation facilities alone is not enough to keep children healthy and focused in school. The consequences of open defecation go way beyond the problem of unpleasant smells. Children practicing open defecation are prone to infection with faecal-oral diseases such as diarrhoea, which negatively affects their health and results in absenteeism from school.

In 2015, with support from Aeon and the Japan Committee for UNICEF, UNICEF Cambodia assessed Trapaing Seika school and worked with development partners BORDA, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and line ministries to rehabilitate and upgrade the toilets. Sex-separated bathrooms and access ramps from the building to the toilet blocks for children with limited mobility were installed. UNICEF also repaired the tube well and equipped it with an automatic piped water pumping system to direct the water to the toilet blocks. This way, students and school staff did not have to carry water from the tube well or the lake.

The toilet blocks before rehabilitation.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Khanndarith Sin

The rehabilitated toilet blocks with handwashing facilities in front of them.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Sovath Ngin

“Since the rehabilitation, students do not defecate outside any more. We even have a regular schedule to clean the toilets every day, and the students from Grade 4 to 6 take part in keeping the toilets clean,” school director Khi Samnang announced proudly.

“Now I do not need to ride back home to poop because I can use the toilet at school,” Kimhong said, happily. 

As part of the WASH in Schools programme at Trapaing Seika primary school, UNICEF installed seven water filters to ensure students have access to clean drinking water during school hours. “I am happy to see students stop drinking unsafe water from the tube well. Now, they bring their own bottle from home and simply refill it at school,” Khi Samnang said.

School children fill up their bottles with safe drinking water from the water filters in front of their classrooms.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Sovath Ngin

While access to clean water is a crucial step in preventing children getting infections, good hygiene practices are equally important. Before UNICEF’s visit, students at Trapaing Seika primary school could not wash their hands. UNICEF and its partners built new hand washing facilities right in front of the toilet blocks. All students at Trapaing Seika primary school now wash their hands after using the toilet and before eating. 

“I did not wash my hands before, because there was no place to wash them. Now I always go to wash my hands with my friends during break time. It’s so much fun to wash in a group,” said Grade 3 student, Pa Nai.

Pa Nai washes her hands with her friends.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Sovath Ngin

Besides the water shortage that led to the toilets malfunctioning and made hand washing difficult, the operation and maintenance of the facilities was another obstacle. As a solution, UNICEF, together with its partner BORDA, trained Khi Samnang on how to maintain the WASH facilities. 

“The training was very useful for me,” Khi Samnang said. “I learnt to arrange a cleaning schedule, make school improvement plans and mobilize resources from the community and other sources. 

“Every Saturday morning after the national anthem, I advise my students to wash their hands, drink safe water and take responsibility for cleaning the toilets regularly,” he added.

School director Khi Samnang with some of his students.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Sovath Ngin

The UNICEF WASH in Schools programme ensures that all children live and learn in a safe and clean environment. The programme helps to end open defecation in schools and makes students agents of change to end open defecation at home. UNICEF is working to provide not only WASH facilities, but also operation and maintenance training to the most disadvantaged schools in rural Cambodia. It ensures the sustainability of the facilities so that cases like Trapaing Seika primary school will not be repeated, and students like Kimhong do not need to miss classes to defecate at home.

As part of the WASH in Schools programme, UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to train school directors across Cambodia on Minimum Requirements for WASH in Schools. The training is a school-led three-star approach that is used as a mechanism to support school directors to mobilize resources for continuous WASH improvements in their schools. 

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