SHAMIM AHMED and MAHFUJ-UR RAHMAN
Despite some impressive efforts of the government of Bangladesh and some development organisations for the last few decades, overall situation of safe water and improved sanitation services in schools have not improved as much as expected. The government has set the standard to install one toilet per sixty students and one hand-washing facility per thousand students. Unfortunately, almost no schools especially in the rural areas of Bangladesh maintain proper standard of sanitation.
As a part of their regular programme implementation, WaterAid and VERC, two nongovernmental organisations assessed the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) facilities of several schools from selected upazilas in Rajshahi. Though the government standard requires having one toilet per sixty students in a school, it was found that only one toilet was being used by around 175 students on an average which is almost three times higher than the agreed national standard of WaSH in schools. Though it was found that 88% of these schools have water points, the students stated that due to the decreasing groundwater table they do not get adequate water from these sources round the year. Most of the studied schools were found poorly managed and unhygienic. Unfortunately no appropriate arrangement for hand washing at schools was found.
An appropriate and meaningful functional linkage among the service providers for school WaSH programme is crucial. But inadequate facilities, inappropriate technologies, poor management and unavailability of fund for WaSH facilities came out as the key obstacles to ensure equity and inclusion in schools. Due to space constraint and willingness to properly design functional toilets, proper drainage and disposal systems were found non-functioning.
Many students claimed that they did not feel comfortable accessing these toilets as ventilations were insufficient and the prevailing darkness and suffocating atmosphere created frightening sensation among them. It is disappointing that no latrine was found which could be easily accessibility for disabled students. Stairs that connect toilets found relatively high whereas handrails, smaller pans, holding bars etc. that can ensure safety and accessibility for all the students were totally unavailable. In general teachers were found unaware about the need of physically challenged students.
Even children with general capacity could not access to most of the hygienic toilets as those were found locked for the teachers. As a part of our cultural practice, students do not feel comfortable to ask teachers for opening the lock of the teachers’ toilet! Teachers were also found reluctant to ensure hygienic toilets for students and they preferred to lock the hygienic toilets for themselves as they do not want to share the same toilet with their students as a part of the existing hierarchy. Provision for separate toilets for female students was found only in high schools.
Members of School Managing Committees (SMC) and some teachers were found somewhat aware about hand washing with soap. But in practical, they do not feel obligated to provide additional effort to promote behavioural change as they are not instructed so by the respective line department of the government. There is no specific policy which ensures proper monitoring of health and environment at school. Usually teachers impart some basics of hygiene behaviour to students in the classes with the help of NGOs. But these sessions are irregular and found monotonous for the students. Effective messages on health, dignity, child rights etc. are not properly delivered in these sessions. The relevant materials required to conduct such sessions were not found during field level observation.
Menstrual Hygiene Management was found as the most neglected issue in school WaSH. Very few schools have that required space and facilities for girls to access during menstruation periods. Teachers are not also very sensitive to maintain or promote healthy menstrual hygiene management system in schools.
Government allocation for water and sanitation is extremely poor for schools. While behavioural change could be considered as a generational investment; government priority in consideration of technical and financial input were given on the development of physical infrastructures, building renovations, improving seating arrangements etc. Schools do not receive separate fund for operation and maintenance of WaSH facilities. They usually manage these (soap, registered book, cleaning agents, water jar etc.) from their contingency fund, which is also very negligible.
WaSH or ‘Child friendly facilities’ are not clearly articulated or focused in any policies in Bangladesh. National Hygiene Policy has recently been drafted, but its wider implications will be understood while disseminated in the schools or to the relevant stakeholders. Teachers or school management committees do not have clear idea about the policies applicable for school WaSH. So immediate orientation of the relevant policies is very much required for the teachers. The government has no clear plan of action to scale up the national standard of WaSH practice in school as prioritised in their election manifesto. Criteria for determining allocation at upazila level are even more complicated due to high demand compared to minimal budget allocation, vested interest of different groups and political influences. Mostly ignored but highly important issue of operation and maintenance of established facilities receive less priority and irregular financial allocation.
Poor sensitisation of concerned policy level officials and lack of understanding at different level of bureaucracy were found as the major challenges for proper implementation of WaSH in schools of Bangladesh. Child friendly issues still exist as a profound ‘jargon’ pushed by NGOs which are non existing in practice. It seems like the term ‘Child friendly’ in WaSH arrangement should be unfolded through practical implication. Advocacy initiatives are still insufficient for promoting regular maintenance of school WaSH facilities and mainstreaming hygiene education through national curriculum. Apart from that, teachers and SMC members’ need proper orientation on inclusiveness and disability. Prototype design for construction should be changed if needed. A clear linkage between water and hygiene needs to be acknowledged during design and construction of any sanitation facilities in schools.
In this circumstance, it should be recommended that the government ensures approved water, sanitation and hygiene related national standards at schools. Immediate adaptation of the plan of action is also required to be realised to ensure the importance of a better, cleaner and healthier next generation. As lack of resource allocation for WaSH is one of the major challenges, hence effective advocacy initiatives need to be taken to guarantee dedicated allocation for WaSH in schools.
This article is published first in the Daily Sun and we republish it upon the consent of the writers as the issue is very important to us.
SHAMIM AHMED: Public Health Professional and Development Thinker and MAHFUJ-UR RAHMAN: Programme Officer, WaterAid, Bangladesh