By Richard Chirombo:
Sometimes, primary schools— set to evaporate the dew of ignorance— somehow push girls down the enormous hole of ignorance.
They force the girls down that path in many ways, one of which being through failure to provide basic necessities to them, observes Civil Society Education Coalition Executive Director, Benedicto Kondowe.
“If we have to promote access to basic education, we have to create a conducive environment by, among other things, providing learning materials as well as sanitation facilities. Sanitation is particularly important, especially for girls,” Kondowe says.
Sustainable Development Goal Four commits United Nations member states to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
And Kondowe says there cannot be inclusive education if girls’ needs are thrown out of the window.
“Sanitation is one of the important factors when it comes to the promotion of inclusive education.
“Unfortunately, this is not always the case and, consequently, girl-learners find themselves being forced out of school not because they are not willing to meet their education goals but because infrastructure makes it impossible for them to do so,” he says.
As things stand, poor sanitation can be cited as the Achilles heel in education promotion efforts.
And the problem is commonplace.
The first ever global assessment of water and sanitation in schools – carried out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) last year– indicates that 620 million children do not have decent toilets at school and around 900 million cannot wash their hands properly.
It says a lack of decent hygiene facilities discourages pupils, particularly girls, from attending school and completing their education.
According to the findings, a third of schools around the world do not have adequate toilet facilities and nearly half – 47 percent – do not provide soap to children.
Researchers considered a range of factors to determine whether drinking water, toilets and washing facilities were of quality. For example, if toilets are in place but are not working or are not single sex, schools are deemed to be failing to offer even a basic standard of hygiene and sanitation.
The report found that children at nursery and primary schools were less likely to have access to clean water and toilets than children at secondary school. The report warns that this affects young children at an important time of their cognitive and physical development and growth – diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor toilets kills a child under the age of five every two minutes.
It notes that, for adolescent girls, being able to change and dispose of sanitary pads and wash their hands in a single-sex space is crucial to school retention.
While WHO and Unicef’s findings are touching, WaterAid’s reports are chilling.
WaterAid indicates that 844 million people in the world – one in nine – do not have clean water close to home; 2.3 billion people in the world – almost one in three – do not have a decent toilet of their own; around 289,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation.
While this casts governments non-State actors in negative light— as if such officials, steeped in thoughts bordering on self-aggrandisement, cannot spare a minute to meet their obligations— there are others who take such issues seriously.
A case in point is German Ambassador to Malawi, Jürgen Bosch, who does not just take the issue of inclusive education seriously, but also ensures that steps are being taken to turn wishes of inclusive education into reality.
Recently, Borsch travelled from Lilongwe to Blantyre, to ensure that financial resources his government invested in sanitation facilities at Sonzowa Primary School, Traditional Authority Chigaru, in Blantyre District benefit learners.
“We are committed to ensuring inclusive access to education as it is key to development,” Borsch says.
Among other things, his government has facilitated the construction of six pit latrines, one urinal and one changing-room for girls at the school.
It is hoped that the facilities will reduce cases of absenteeism among school girls, especially when they are menstruating.
“Every child needs to have the same chance to get education at an early stage as it coincides with time learners are able to absorb what is being taught to them.
“We want to give every child a chance to go further with their education,” he says.
To do this at Sonzowa Primary School, the Embassy of Germany provided financial resources to Umodzi Youth Organisation (Uyo). Its programmes officer, Shy Ali, says they are determined to improve sanitation and hygiene levels at the school.
Ali says the idea is to create an environment which secures children’s dignity, safety, health and attendance in classes.
“It is for this reason that Uyo felt compelled to construct blocks of toilets for learners— both boys and girls— and a changing room for girls. We believe that these will go a long way in creating a safe environment and help retain learners in school, especially girls who abscond classes due to lack of privacy when they are menstruating.
“We believe that improved sanitation will make pupils healthier and active in class,” Ali says.
It is little acts like these that touch the heart of Sonzowa Primary School Head teacher, Juma Eleven. More so because his heart is torn into pieces whenever a girl learner drops out of school.
“The facilities will ease the problem of access to better toilets, a development that led to a large number of dropouts recently due to poor toilet facilities at the school.
“Just imagine, four girls dropped out of school recently because of lack of toilets,” Eleven says.
He says the handful toilets at the school cater for 536 enrolled learners.
Standard Eight learner, Shakira Burton, says stakeholders have to invest in sanitation facilities to help girls who stay home go back to school.
“I know a number of girls that stay at home when menstruating, which negatively affects their performance in national examinations.
“We can change this by investing in sanitation facilities. Remember, a girl taught is as good as a nation taught,” she says.
Such an innocent sentiment from an innocent girl should be enough to make those who are almost innocent of any sense of responsibility to get to work.
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