Unleash the Power of Youth with this Back-to-School Essential

Girl standing outside toilets
Image: WaterAid/Ernest Randriarimalala

Today is August 12th, and in just a few weeks Ottawa’s youth, myself included, will be heading back to school. At this time of year, it’s hard to miss the ads encouraging us to buy the latest back-to-school essentials – the hottest gadgets or the newest outfits – each promising us a more successful school year.

Today, August 12th, is also International Youth Day. It is a day to raise awareness about the issues faced by youth around the world and a day to focus on empowering young people towards active social, political and economic participation.

As a student myself, I believe that it is access to quality education that lies at the heart of allowing young people to realize their full potential – to live healthier, happier lives and to make the kinds of contributions to the world that we all know young people are capable of making! And the statistics agree. One extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10%, and children whose mothers can read are 50% more likely to live past the age of five. Moreover, with estimates suggesting that some 420 million people would be lifted out of poverty with secondary education, the ability for education to empower youth is extraordinarily clear.

However, access to education remains a major issue facing youth in the developing world, with the United Nations estimating that one in five children, youth and adolescents is not in school.

Having spent my summer completing an internship at WaterAid Canada, I have learned that although a number of complex issues keep children and youth out of school, access to clean water and decent toilets in schools is a primary contributor.

Without such basic services in schools, participation is decreased and performance wanes. Would you want to go to school if you didn’t know where you would relieve yourself? Without clean water and decent toilets, diseases can spread like wildfire and youth are forced out of school because they are too sick to attend. Without access to safe and private toilets girls who have reached menarche must leave school, often dropping out, to manage their menstruation. And finally, without these essentials at schools youth, particularly girls, must spend valuable time collecting water for their families instead of receiving an education.

Girl standing in classroom
Image: WaterAid/James Kiyimba

In my books, education and the empowerment of youth go hand in hand. But if we want to keep kids in schools, we need to ensure that all students, everywhere have access to clean water and decent toilets on school grounds. Like backpacks and books, these are absolute back-to-school essentials.

For over 30 years, WaterAid has been empowering youth by working to get “taps and toilets” into schools across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the South Pacific. With a clear vision and mission to transform the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people, WaterAid works to improve access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in schools, communities and health centres. For example, WaterAid’s Clean Water for Schools Program, a 5-year program jointly funded by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada which concluded in 2017, reached over 170 schools and over 120,000 students and teachers in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia with the school essentials.

However, despite incredible progress, much work remains. Globally, three out of every 10 schools lack clean water or safe, private toilets and an estimated 443 million school days are missed each year due to water-related illnesses. With this in mind, as you or your children begin this year’s back-to-school shopping, consider adding “water and sanitation services in schools”, through WaterAid Canada, to your list. Last year’s backpack still in good condition? Already have a closet full of clothes? Consider putting that money towards something that will empower the world’s young people instead. (As little as $25 can provide one person with a sustainable source of clean water!)

As Ottawa’s youth prepare to go back to school, and in the spirit of International Youth Day, let us all consider how we can help ensure that all young people, no matter where they happen to live, have the back-to-school essentials that will unleash their greatest potential.  

Ria Wilson, Undergraduate student, Queen’s University