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Why Simply Building Toilets Is Not Going To Bring About A Sanitation Change

With sanitation and hygiene being widely discussed subjects at present, there is an increase in public awareness of the connection between sanitation, hygiene and health.

It has been well known that poor sanitation facilities and unhygienic conditions are responsible for causing diseases and even deaths among people. However, the situation is even more dangerous when it comes to children because they are more vulnerable to the risks associated with poor sanitation facilities and practices. This is reflected in the data as seen in this article, which informs that a large percentage of deaths caused due to diarrhoea are those of children. Indian infants make up nearly 25% of global diarrhoea deaths as per a study in March 2011. Parasitic infections such as diarrhoea, typhoid, dysentery, gastroenteritis, trachoma, schistosomiasis, Hepatitis-A are contagious, and the situation is made even worse by poor sanitary conditions. In a large social setting such as a school the diseases can spread rapidly, therefore accounting for the large percentage of school going children affected by them. The parasites consume nutrients from the infected children and cause or aggravate malnutrition in them. This hampers children’s cognitive and physical development. Most of these diseases are preventable by the use of safe sanitation practices and drinking water facilities.

India has a total of 178.3 million children attending school, and the sanitation facilities in these institutions have long been dismal. Many of the existing facilities often face the following drawbacks-

  • Non-existent, insufficient, broken, dirty and/or unsafe water supply, sanitation and hand-washing facilities.
  • Toilets or latrines which are not adapted to the needs of children, in particular girls and differently-abled students.
  • Children with poor or no hand washing habits and practices.
  • Non-existent or irrelevant health and hygiene education.
  • Unhealthy and dirty classrooms and school compounds.
  • Lack of an established system for operation and maintenance of the existing facilities.

However, with the current government’s increased focus on sanitation, exemplified by the launch of the Swachh Bharat and Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan, there is a marked increase in infrastructural capabilities in the country’s schools.  As per the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014, published by the education non-profit Pratham:

“Since 2010, there has been significant progress in the availability of useable toilets. Nationally in 2014, 65.2% of schools visited had toilet facilities that were useable. In 2013, this figure was 62.6% and in 2010, it was 47.2%. The proportion of schools visited where girls’ toilets were available and useable has gone up from 32.9% in 2010 to 53.3% in 2013 to 55.7% in 2014.”

On August 15th 2014, the Prime Minister said, “I want to make a beginning today itself, and that is – all schools in the country should have separate toilets for girls. Only then will our daughters not be compelled to leave school midway…this target should be finished within one year with the help of state governments, and on the next 15 August, we should be in a firm position to announce that there is no school in India without separate toilets for boys and girls.”

A year later, on August 15, 2015, he announced that the target was complete, and that 2,62,000 schools now have toilets. The responsible ministry, the Ministry of Human Resource Development also announced a 100% achievement of the target. This is supported by the statistics available on the Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan website.

In a country as vast and diverse as ours, it is necessary that the planning and execution of an initiative at such scale involves the schools, along with the local administration and State Government at every significant step of the process, with consistent support from the centre.

This initiative has provided a much needed boost to the cause of improving the health and hygiene of school students. Several stakeholders across the country, ranging from the central government to local NGOs and individuals trying to make a difference have banded together in an attempt to address this problem.

It is important that we recognize and celebrate the efforts made so far by various stakeholders, and recognise the change they have wrought in the lives of several students across the country. However, we must not lose sight of the larger goal, nor allow ourselves to be lulled into believing that the job is done.

While the statistics are impressive, they only tell us one part of the story, and it is imperative that we go beyond the first impressions we receive from the numbers. This article delves deeper into the reality of the situation.

Our organisation earth&us is based in Auroville, Tamil Nadu and is working on one such school sanitation project which is a subset of the Swacch Vidyalaya Abhiyan. We have been involved as a nodal agency for the implementation of the project, the aim of which is to develop and deliver modules and behaviour change strategies for hygiene and sanitation habits of school children. We have seen firsthand the new toilets in schools where earlier there was no alternative to open defecation, and have been privy to the efforts of people at every level who have worked tirelessly to enable this. As we applaud them, we wish to further our appreciation by making sure it doesn’t end here. During the course of this project, we have faced several challenges with regard to the implementation of this initiative and its contribution to achieving the goal of giving access to safe sanitation to all school children.

Our goal as an organisation is to ensure the sustainability of this initiative by identifying and working on the factors that are essential for the long term functionality of school toilets. Simply building toilets cannot be enough. This initiative, or further programmes in the area of school sanitation in the future need to go on to encompass the issue of hygiene in a holistic fashion, taking into account all the factors that go into creating a safe and clean environment for our children.

A rapid WASH assessment of schools shows that many of the school toilets are not functional. All of this data along with our own experiences on the field prove that this mammoth project still has a long way to go. This is because despite infrastructural inputs being the essential first step for laying foundation of future efforts these inputs are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the issues highlighted earlier in this article continue to exist. The next steps would include extending the scope and target of the project to behaviour change for students, teachers and parents, as well as other hygiene related issues in schools along with programmes specifically targeted to ensuring operation and management of the infrastructure including addressing issues of water supply and sewage management. We hope the government furthers this initiative by building on the essential work that has been started with this program consistently and comprehensively which will enable all school going children to have access to safe and healthy environment.

This article originally appeared here.

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