International Women’s Day fell on March 8 with this year’s theme “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change” which focuses on innovative ways in which individuals can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of access to public services, social protection systems and sustainable infrastructure. Transformations, integrated approaches and new solutions are necessary particularly for advancing gender equality and empowering women on the journey to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In other words, “business as usual” will not be sufficient and should put forward innovative approaches that remove structural barriers and ensure no woman and no girl is left behind.
Right to education
Education is a human right as reflected in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
SDG Goal 4 targets, “To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
We Sri Lankans as a nation can be proud of, the literacy rate of the population, which is 92.5 per cent, which is one of the highest literate populations amongst developing nations. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world that provides universal free education from primary to tertiary stage established with the free education system launched in 1945 with the initiative of C. W. W. Kannangara.
Theoretically, this showcases the equal opportunities given to both girls and boys for education. The Government, in the process of improving the quality standards of education systems mostly pay their attention towards infrastructure development and improving curriculums. Still, as a woman, I have realized that there is one important but less attractive topic left behind - Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in Schools.
In Sri Lanka in 2016, out of the total number of 10,000 schools (Lanka, 2017) more than 1,200 complained that they did not have drinking water facilities which obviously reflects the lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities in the schools.
A report was done by Water Aid and UNICEF in Sri Lanka highlights the toilet to schoolgirl ratio in Sri Lanka is 1:66 whereas the WHO standard is 1:25 (WaterAid, 2017).
"Sri Lankan schools do not support sanitary hygiene infrastructure for females "
"More than 1,200 schools do not have drinking water facilities"
WASH in schools undermines the educational opportunities of girls
“In our school, we have toilets with basic facilities but it does not have regular water supply which results in smelly and unclean toilets. Therefore, my friends and I avoid going to the toilet during school hours and we manage it by drinking less water. According to my Mother, drinking less water and accumulating urine for a longer period may lead to kidney-related diseases in the future. The most unpleasant things happen when I get periods at school, which is another headache. I tend to look at the back of my uniform always to avoid feeling embarrassed in front of my friends because; I keep the same napkin for the whole day without changing”. This was the voice of a girl, whom I met at an urban school
WASH in schools impacts the education and health outcomes of girls and boys. Lack of privacy, suitable infrastructure for cleaning and washing and good hygiene in school toilets contributes to school absenteeism, particularly when girls menstruate.
Suppressed by the issue of not having access to water in the toilets, girls and women try to wear the napkins for all day and use same old rags or cloths, which lead to increased risk of infections. Not having single-sex toilets and clean toilets make girls not change the napkins-embarrassed about periods and feelings of shame, in front of their male friends.
Millions of girls and women who failed to face these challenges and could not come out of taboos and myths miss school and work, raising the risk of them dropping out completely.
Moreover, according to the position paper on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene did by WaterAid Canada, inadequate WASH facilities in schools are a key contributor to childhood illnesses, namely diarrhoea. Children lose 443 million school days each year as a result of illnesses due to contaminated water.
In 2011, only 45 per cent of schools in the least developed and low-income countries had adequate sanitation facilities (Canada).
WASH as a pathway to gender equality
The School Health and Nutrition Branch of the Ministry of Education clearly identified this gap and stepped in looking for possible solutions. They identified a panel of experts with the collaboration of UNICEF to develop a Handbook for WASH in Schools.
According to the Handbook, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in schools refers to a combination of technical (hardware) and human development (software) components that are necessary to produce a healthy school environment and to develop or support appropriate health and hygiene behaviours. The technical components include drinking water, hand washing, toilet facilities and waste management.
The human development components are the activities that promote conditions within the school and the practices of children that help to prevent water and sanitation related diseases and worm infestation. (Handbook for WASH in schools )
In 2007, the Ministry of Education with the fullest cooperation of Ministry of Health and other stakeholders launched a School Health Promotion programme (SHPP) through a circular.
The main objective of the programme is leading the school to work for the health promotion within the school community that includes students, teachers and support staff and parents, through organizational capacity building.
The circular continues as water can be supplied either through water supply schemes in Urban Councils or wells and it is necessary to have overhead tanks with an electric water pump if required. Water should be distributed throughout the school including the toilets.
Ministry of Education, aiming to provide universal sanitation coverage by 2020 and to mainstream menstrual hygiene management (MHM) through WASH in Schools (WinS) policies has decided and taken steps to facilitate schools with sufficient, accessible, private, secure, clean and culturally appropriate toilets with sufficient access to water.
As a result, they have designed twelve toilet types for schools including one with the facility of disposing of sanitary napkins with the assistance of several stakeholders including UNICEF and started constructions with the government allocation and financial assistance of generous donors.
Toilets with the facility of disposal of sanitary napkins for girls
It is evident that poor sanitation infrastructure limited access to hygienic menstrual products, lack of education, persisting taboos and stigma leads to poor menstrual hygiene. This could undermine the educational opportunities, personal development, health and overall social status of girls in schools. In response, the Government of Sri Lanka started integrating good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) practices into national norms and standards related to WASH in schools (WinS).
On the journey to MHM in schools, the Ministry of Education in collaboration with UNICEF developed a Handbook on WASH in Schools with dedicated chapters on MHM. The ministry is in the process of revising the national-level guidelines and developing an MHM training toolkit for planned national level Training of Trainers programme. It is expected to see the visible impact on the health and hygiene of children through improvement in their health and hygiene practices, and those of their families and the communities. It also aims to improve the curriculum and teaching methods while promoting hygiene practices and community ownership of water and sanitation facilities in the schools.
Rainwater harvesting to give access to water
“It is advisable to establish rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems in all the schools regardless of having any other water supply”, stressed Dr TanujaAriyananda, Chief Executive Officer, Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum (LRWHF). This corresponds to the issue raised by the Education Ministry, the demand for water in schools changes over time due to various reasons, therefore the figure changes from time to time. In a country like Sri Lanka getting rain from multiple origins with a mean annual rainfall varies from under 900 to over 5000mm, the simplest solution is to collect and store water through rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems.
”The forum also recommended repairing and rehabilitating the existing RWH systems after reviewing 200 RWH systems in the five districts of Anuradhapura, Moneragala, Kandy Vavuniya and Mannar in an assessment on Review of Rain Water Harvesting In Schools and Rehabilitation of the Underutilized Systems.
People feel empowered when they have been treated equally, and have control over their needs as rights-holders. For an example, when women participate in decision-making on WASH and when they experience better and safer access to WASH, they get more respect from other members of the community which increases confidence and which contributes to changes in women and men’s attitudes towards women’s leadership. It is also believed that youth are far more receptive to innovations and they are at an age which can be influenced to cultivate the habits of good personal hygiene. The combination of facilities, correct behavioural practices and education are meant to have a positive impact on the health and hygiene conditions of the community as a whole.
Sri Lanka Water Partnership (an affiliate of Global Water Partnership South Asia) has long invested in school sanitation advocacy programme in Central Province – promoting hygienic practices, provision of sanitary facilities, maintenance and regular cleansing systems were put in place. “Our work in school sanitation is carried out with private sector partners such as National Development Bank (NDB) and Hatton National Bank (HNB) and the Provincial Department of Education. We have also pioneered MHM awareness programmes in girls’ schools with the support of the Provincial Department of Education, Central Province and Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Sri Lanka. Our latest achievements are completing RWH systems for selected schools in Aranayake and in Hatton, preceded by sanitation advocacy to improve toilet maintenance in schools” said Kusum Athukorala, Senior Advisor to SLWP, who is willingly contributing her time and energy in this journey to achieve WASH goals at a school level.
Echoing the International Women’s Day 2019 theme “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”, let us look upon on industry leaders, social entrepreneurs, gender equality activists and women innovators and ask them to examine the ways in which innovation can remove barriers and accelerate progress for gender equality, encourage investment in gender-responsive social systems, and build services and infrastructure that meet the needs of women and girls.
The writer is the Communications Coordinator for Global Water Partnership South Asia
Photo credit: Ms Kusum Athukorala, SLWP and Lanka Rainwater Harvesting Forum