WASH stands for water, sanitation and hygiene. It doesn’t sound sexy, but when you think about it, those things are fundamental to our lives.
The link between WASH and education is not so evident, but it too is essential, this time for keeping students in school — especially girls and particularly when they reach the age of menstruation.
Nepal’s WASH statistics have been improving but it’s important that we don’t confuse facilities with functioning WASH systems, because in many cases water taps and bathrooms are on site but are not useable.
Here’s the column I wrote about this for the current issue of Nepali Times:
Do not fail students in WASH
By the numbers, Nepal’s progress in water, sanitation and health (WASH) is encouraging. More than 90% of people now have access to toilets and 74% enjoy safe drinking water, a recent survey found.
But as usual, facts and figures alone don’t tell the full story. According to Unicef, just 25% of water supply systems in the country work properly, 36% require minor repairs and 39% need either major repairs, rehabilitation or reconstruction.
Schools are also reporting progress — 82% now have toilets and close to 80% can boast an improved water source — but in only 47% of schools was water supply available during a recent survey.
Nationally, two-thirds of schools have separate toilets for girls. That is supported by research done in 12 schools in Achham, Bajura and Parsa in 2016. It found that all schools had toilets, with 10 having separate ones for girls. Yet only 3 toilets in all 12 schools had a water tap that children could reach and just 1 toilet in all the schools was disabled-friendly. Nineteen toilets had a door that locked while 33 lacked a door; no toilets had soap and water nearby for hand-washing.
Girl students especially are sensitive to the availability of toilets, and if they have to share facilities with boys, or if there are no locking doors or if no water is available, some girls will choose to stay home instead.
Given that enrolment of girls in schools is already lower than boys because of traditional beliefs that educating females is simply not a smart investment, effort is needed to ensure they remain in class. When girls are menstruating equipped private toilets are even more important.
The number of examples is growing country-wide of schools where the administration and students are overcoming traditional barriers to together manage girl students’ menstruation so that they don’t miss classes. There was good news in the recent budget too, the government promising to supply all community schools with sanitary pads and also allocating Rs43 billion for water supply and sanitation projects.
While implementation will be key, such initiatives should be praised. WASH is not a luxury or an add-on like a science lab or a football pitch; it is a necessity. Having working toilets does not equate to equipping schools with fancy facilities but of taking pains to create healthy environments, and habits, for Nepali children.
Advances in water supply will undoubtedly be challenged by growing shortages as the climate crisis deepens. Water quality also remains a priority concern in this country. Surveys have found that 71% of households in Nepal are at risk from E. coli contamination of source water, and 82% from E.coli at the household level. 700 children die from diarrhoea yearly.
If we want our girls to have the same opportunities as boys, and if we want all children to be healthy enough to attend school every day, it’s time that we took building — and maintaining — toilets as seriously as we do building roads.