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Crisis in the Classroom: This World Toilet Day we are fighting for the rights of children everywhere

Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive of WaterAid UK | WaterAid

5 min read Partner content

There is a crisis in our world’s classrooms: more basic than the availability of teachers or books, with massive impact on children’s health, attendance and ability to learn, says Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive, WaterAid.

One in three schools around the world do not have decent toilets, and one in five primary schools have no toilets at all – leaving small children with no choice but to hold it in all through their lessons, or venture out to a corner of the playground or a nearby bush.

That is the daily reality of 620 million schoolchildren around the world: the equivalent of almost double the population of the United States, denied their human right to sanitation each time they sit down at their desks, or don’t go to school because there is no toilet.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact of this situation: the filthy environment makes children ill, leading to high absenteeism and poor learning. This worsens when girls begin menstruating if they have no safe, private, hygienic space to care for themselves; often they miss lessons completely for several days a month, rather than risk the embarrassment and shame of a leak in front of their classmates.

For hundreds of thousands of children each year, it is deadly: 140,000 children of school age die each year of diarrhoea and intestinal infections, many of which could be prevented with clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene.

It defies logic that any school anywhere could be called a school without providing something so basic to comfort, safety and health: safe, private toilets in appropriate numbers, clean water and a way for children to wash hands with soap. On this World Toilet Day – 19 November – in our report, The Crisis in the Classroom [], we at WaterAid are calling on governments to right this unbelievable wrong with water, sanitation and hygiene for all – at home and at school, and to ensure that the provision of decent toilets are suitable for the needs of girls and for disabled children.

That is why the match funding provided by DFID for WaterAid’s recent Untapped appeal is so essential. The £3.9 million received under the UK Aid Match scheme will deliver water points, sanitation facilities and hygiene promotion in 22 schools across Mozambique and Sierra Leone, a project made possible by the generosity of the British people.

This investment will help keep girls in school by providing schools with water points, hygienic toilets and handwashing promotion. Investing in school water points and toilets belongs alongside investment in classrooms, books and teachers, to give girls the best chance of completing their education and realising their potential.

As Harriett Baldwin, Foreign Office and DFID Minister for Africa, said:

“Girls' education is an incredibly powerful development tool. Girls earn more, get married later and have children later the longer they stay in school. All girls have the right to achieve their dreams, and to do so with good health and dignity. Our Girls’ Education Challenge Fund helps to keep girls in school by providing toilets and menstrual hygiene facilities in poorer countries.”

We know that once children understand their rights, they are braver than any of us in demanding them. Last week, five incredible young women from a cross-section of schools on the outskirts of Accra met HRH The Prince of Wales during his official visit to Ghana. These girls, aged 10 through 16, had been trained by WaterAid and a local partner organisation as water, sanitation and hygiene advocates in their schools. They had created scorecards in which they measured their schools’ access to water, decent toilets, handwashing with soap, waste disposal and changing areas for menstrual hygiene.

Using these cards, they garnered support from students and teachers and were able pressure decision-makers into action: in some cases winning new toilet blocks and water taps, in others coming up with temporary solutions like home-made ‘tippy taps’ for handwashing, using plastic water bottles and soap, to help protect children’s health while awaiting more permanent solutions.

Lindiwell, aged just 10, told WaterAid how she campaigned among her classmates to convince them to stop using the school compound wall to relieve themselves, ahead of new toilet blocks opening.

“It was very smelly and the children were often ill,” she said. “I asked them if they were happy with this situation and they said no they were not. Now the students are using the toilets.”

Their efforts were all the more powerful as Ghana is among nations with low access to decent toilets in its schools and in its homes, as revealed in WaterAid’s State of the World’s Toilets 2018 report, The Crisis in the Classroom [LINK:]. Some 86% of Ghanaian households do not have a safe private toilet at home, and 31% of its schools have no functioning toilets at all.

The desire of this next generation to change the world is intense. All these girls, and girls everywhere, need is for those who are now in power to open the door. Water, sanitation and hygiene must be a political priority, and schools -- as well as communities, health facilities and other public spaces – must have the funding to ensure these human rights are met. These will transform the futures of that next generation. 

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Read the most recent article written by Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive of WaterAid UK - WaterAid statement – merger of DFID and FCO


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