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Back to school WASH: where is the missing link?

Posted 6 Sep 2016 by Om Prasad Gautam and Ada Oko-Williams

September is synonymous with a return to the classroom. As children across the world go back to school, Om Prasad Gautam, Technical Support Manager for Hygiene at WaterAid UK, and Ada Oko-Williams, Technical Support Manager for Sanitation at WaterAid UK, discuss what has been lacking in our approach to ensuring access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in schools, and how we can make a bigger impact.

This week, millions of children around the globe are returning to school. At WaterAid we are wondering about their WASH experiences as they go back, and how those experiences will affect whether they enjoy a supportive and conducive learning environment. We sincerely hope that access to WASH and its improved practices in their school is one factor that enables them to attend and achieve their goal of a transformative education. However, we know too well that this is not the case for all schoolchildren. We know this is especially true for young girls who will drop out or endure undignified experiences because of a lack of access to sanitation, hygiene practices and safe water in school.

Julie (middle), 12, with her best friends fetching dirty water from the river in Besely village, Madagascar.
Julie (middle) and her friends fetch dirty water from the river in Besely village, Madagascar.

Only 71% schools worldwide have water, (as low as 54% in sub-Saharan Africa) and just 69% have sanitation access (as few as 53% in sub-Saharan Africa) (UNICEF 2015). Very limited, estimated data from 11 countries shows that only 21% of schools have handwashing facilities. Correct use, maintenance, and sustainability of school WASH services, and attaining behaviour change, remain big challenges in many countries. Lack of facilities, practices, and services in schools causes a lot of children, especially girls, to be out of school.

WaterAid adopts the UN Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and our own child protection policy protects the rights of all children, including those who are disabled, or from minorities, ethnic or faith groups, regardless of factors such as gender, sexuality, and health. We work towards ensuring equality and non-discrimination, meaningful participation, and sustaining WASH services at institutions.

Governments have an obligation to protect children's rights in the same way, and therefore have a critical role to play in ensuring efforts to improve school WASH are successful in the long term. WaterAid works with governments at all levels to help ensure appropriate policies, capacities, and resources (e.g. human and financial) are in place. Through continuous analysis, we now know that our focus has been linear and narrow in helping people to realise their rights to education through the contribution of access to inclusive and sustainable WASH facilities, hygiene practices, and services in schools.

The recent WaterAid Global Workshop on School WASH gave us a greater understanding of what working with the education sector could really mean. We expanded that view and broadened our perspective beyond our typical engagement with the education ministry, departments and government agencies to all other support and integral bodies; these are equally relevant and influential in bringing about the change we want to see – universal access to WASH, including in schools.

"We don’t have water in school so I only drink water before and after school.” Bienvenu, 5, from Miarinarivo village, Madagascar.
"We don't have water in school so I only drink water before and after school." Bienvenu, 5, from Miarinarivo village, Madagascar.

We know that without access to, and use of, adequate and inclusive WASH, education for all cannot really be achieved. The education sector’s actors and stakeholders include very strong civil society platforms, advocating and campaigning for education for all. They often also act as think tanks for development of the education sector, focusing on influencing issues and policies related to curriculum, cognitive development, infrastructure, nutrition and school feeding programmes, to mention a few.

These integral bodies include networks of private sector actors that are service providers to the schools system, and teachers’ unions. They are very powerful and influential not only with regards to the schools, but also in political process and leadership within localities. They include, for example, networks of civil society organisations working on education, and faith-based institutions. Some of these networks operate at local, national, regional and even global levels.

Scanning our interventions across several of our Country Programmes on school WASH, we recognise that we barely engage with this category of actors. These actors  influence through advocacy and campaigns what happens within the education sector without understanding the place or implications of access to WASH for the development of the education sector; the issues of WASH are certainly under-represented if at all mentioned. The WASH sector values the input and contributions of the civil society organisations working in the WASH sector; likewise, the education sector listens to those working in the education sector, and we should capitalise on this.

"I have been working and campaigning in the education sector for the past seven years coordinating a network of civil society organisations working in Education. I have never really encountered nor understood the issues of water, sanitation and hygiene at schools as an important component to achieving education for all until I was contacted by WaterAid! We need to talk to each other some more" Janet Muthoni of Elimu Yeti, an education activist as guest speaker in global school WASH workshop.

It is no wonder that stakeholders like Janet are not as informed about the role of WASH in the education development sphere as they should be. School WASH remains a low priority for the education sector. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.1 presents a real opportunity for WaterAid and all other WASH organisations and actors focusing on school WASH to explore greater relationships with the full range of stakeholders in the education sector. We must work to ensure the tokenistic reference to WASH in the Education for All frameworks, its six goals and the summary report on its performance in the Millennium Development Goal era, is not repeated.

SDG Goal 4 “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, indicator 4a, and its accompanying strategies, are an improvement in clarity of WASH’s place in education, and offers a real opportunity to further and advance this recognition that the right to education of many vulnerable people can be achieved.


Girls at Nampongo School, Zambia, wave to show appreciation for the new toilet
Girls at Nampongo School, Zambia, wave to show appreciation for the new toilet.

The point is we are missing crucial stakeholders, game changers and allies in our scope and response to the issues of school WASH, and this is happening across the board. As an organisation we have a critical role to play in this, and it is imperative that we explore and broaden our networks and scope of engagement beyond the typical, well-trodden paths of working with the ministries’ departments and agencies. We must step up our act in understanding the education sector better, improve our knowledge of the crucial stakeholders. Through careful power analysis must determine who we need to work with in the school system and support systems at the community and district levels, the private sector, development actors, international development agencies, and networks, including within the UN system.

As children return to school this season, it is a clarion call for WaterAid as an organisation to carefully review our programme design and ensure our responses are appropriate and clear in terms of not only understanding the challenges with school WASH. We must also translate our understanding of the issues and challenges into clear strategies, recognising who must walk this journey with us, who is most influential in each given context, and where ‘the iron is hottest’ for us to strike with impact!

Business as usual will not bring the desired change and impact. If we keep our eyes on the mark, we will be inspired to innovate with our activities, our technologies, our engagements, and, particularly, our partnerships!

At WaterAid we will share our school WASH journey and new global school WASH guidelines and standards through a webinar at 10am UK time on 7 September 2016. To join the webinar, please use the following link:


Om Prasad Gautam is Technical Support Manager for Hygiene at WaterAid UK, and Ada Oko-Williams is Technical Support Manager for Sanitation at WaterAid UK.

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