Monday, June 1, 2015

Latrines? Yes, please!

How sanitation facilities and hygiene awareness are leading to behavioural change in rural Cambodia 

By Ashanti Bleich 

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Ashanti Bleich
14-year-old Chorn Seth washes his hands at Kohcheck Primary School, Prey Veng province.

PREY VENG, Cambodia, 3 June 2015 – Kohcheck Primary School is situated in Kohcheck village in Prey Veng, a province notorious for its high rate of open defecation. We meet with Sun Kossal, the school director: when asked about defecation practices in the community, she says that not all households have latrines. The majority of those without a latrine live in an area that gets flooded in the rainy season therefore, she explains, “people are reluctant to build latrines because they are afraid that the facilities may get flooded, with their contents spreading all over around their houses.”

Open defecation leads to inadequate hygiene and facilitates the spread of bacteria generating diseases; children are particularly vulnerable to water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea. In the attempt to fight diseases and trigger behavioural change, in 2012 UNICEF launched a project to provide the school with water and sanitation facilities (a rainwater storage tank and latrines), with the support from Japan Aeon. Today a total of 241 students attend Kohcheck Primary School and use latrines instead of resorting to open defecation.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Ashanti Bleich
UNICEF built two blocks of latrines (female, male and disabled access) in Koh Check Primary School, Prey Veng province, in 2012.

During our visit at the school, we meet with six students from Grade 4 and 6 and ask them if they have latrines at home. Four do; two don’t due to their more disadvantaged background. 14-year-old Chorn Seth is one of the latter: he lives in the part of the village that gets flooded in the rainy season. “I don’t have a latrine at home but I always use my relatives’, which is close to my house,” says Seth.

He is accustomed to using a latrine in school so this option seems more convenient to him compared to open defecation.  All six students confirm that they regularly use the facilities at school and feel comfortable doing so, especially because the blocks for female and male are separated. Additionally, thanks to the rotating cleaning schedule, the latrines are normally clean, although during the dry season water for flushing is sometimes missing.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Ashanti Bleich
Grade 6 children answer questions on sanitation and hygiene at Kohcheck Primary School, Prey Veng province.

Teachers are raising awareness on the importance of sanitation and hygiene with targeted training sessions. “Educating children and raising awareness on hygiene practices reduces sickness. This decreases absenteeism and promotes better health which, in turn, have a positive impact on learning conditions. Teachers are promoting sanitation and hygiene by involving children in the school cleaning schedule, which consists of various tasks such as cleaning the latrines, classrooms and playground to keep the school area clean and enjoyable for all,” explains Sun Kossal.

How to motivate children to use latrines and be proactive towards sanitation and hygiene?

Classes are cleaned, latrines are maintained and the compound is kept in good condition. How does the school manage to maintain such high standards?

An ad-hoc student committee is in charge of the good management of the schedule prepared by the teachers. Consisting of 12 student volunteers, the committee makes sure the students complete their tasks; in addition, it has monthly meetings with the school director to give her an update on the organization of the school.

Giving responsibilities to the students motivates them; they take their role very seriously and this reinforces sanitation and hygiene awareness. When we ask Seth when his turn to clean the latrines is, he answers, “I did it yesterday!”

Using latrines is now a well-rooted practice in the children’s life. In addition, open defecation does not seem to be seen favourably by younger generations. When asked whether they use a latrine or not, all the students start laughing, pointing out how strange it is to ask such a question.

Behavioural change is a long-term process which requires sustained effort for it to be successful. Schools are just a starting point: a major shift in perception and behaviour in children can trickle down to the household level and impact the whole community.

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