The Blog

A Girl's Right to Education Includes Water and Sanitation

If we are to celebrate all that women have achieved, surely this basic right, essential for health and dignity, which has held so many women and girls back from their full potential cannot go ignored.

In a school in Zambia, schoolgirls will be marking Women's Day in a way that should be unremarkable: by attending lessons.

They are there in part because their school now has three basic necessities which schoolchildren -- indeed, everyone -- in the developed world take for granted: a tap, safe private toilets, and a way to wash their hands with soap.

These should be basic components of a school. They should be unremarkable.

But access to water, sanitation and good hygiene are still missing in too many schools and communities around the world.

One in three schools without sanitation

Unicef monitoring tells us that one in three schools around the world still do not have safe, private toilets, increasing the likelihood that girls will drop out at puberty and entrenching the cycle of poverty. Cutting short the education of these future mothers will also affect the next generation.

However, WaterAid and its local partners have now added these essentials to Lubunda Primary School, to help change the course of the community, and make families healthier and more able to earn a living.

Alice Namonje, the menstrual hygiene coordinator, with some of her students at Lubunda Primary School in Zambia. Photo: Chileshe Chanda, WaterAid

"Absenteeism was high among girls. Some could stay away from school for a week, when they finish their periods," said Alice Namonje, 38, a teacher at the school, who now also teaches girls what to expect during menstruation and how to manage their periods as part of the new programme.

"Many girls have ended up stopping school because sometimes they are stigmatised during their periods," she said. However, private toilets and the ability to wash properly has made it easier for teenage girls to attend all month long.

Breaking the silence

"Girls should not stay at home because of menstruating, We are breaking the silence, because menstruation is natural," Ms Namonje said.

Children no longer need to spend hours fetching water that is likely unsafe to drink, but instead can collect clean water from a tapstand. The students now understand and promote the importance of handwashing with soap, and are healthier and cleaner as a result.

Their school will improve as it becomes more attractive to teachers. Who wants to spend their professional day thinking about where and how they will go to the toilet, or unable to count on a refreshing glass of water after a long morning's teaching?

And crucially for girls, once they reach puberty, having a safe, private toilet can mean the difference between going to school and dropping out of class for a week every month as they try to deal with their period in a discreet and dignified way.

An issue that affects over a billion women and girls

It is incomprehensible that as we celebrate all the achievements of women in this modern world, some 1.2 billion women and girls still live without adequate sanitation and 330 million women and girls still live without access to clean drinking water. Nearly all these women and girls live in the developing world.

Dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene including lack of handwashing facilities with soap have a greater impact on women and girls' health, safety and right to education. Dirty water and a lack of sanitation claim more than 150,000 girls' lives every year before they even start school through diarrhoeal disease.

WaterAid's research and experience has shown that when women are empowered to speak out on access to water and sanitation, communities - including homes, schools and medical facilities - are more likely to accommodate the needs of girls and women, improving everyone's health, well-being and economic status.

'My children will never go through what I went through'

Leah N'gandwe, 37, knows this first-hand. The farmer from Wachani Village in Lubunda district said that in her own childhood, she walked daily more than an hour to an unprotected well that was the village's main water source - a chore which interrupted her education.

"It was not easy to be educated, especially as a girl," she said. "It was so burdensome that even while at school I was feeling the pressure of the obligation to draw water. Our parents always made the job of drawing water a responsibility of a girl.

Leah N'gandwe with her daughters Maggie, 10, and Catherine, 7, and grandchild Chansa, 4 at her home in Wachani Vllage, Lubunda. Her daughters can now attend school more regularly thanks to the addition of a water pump and safe, clean toilets. Photo: Chileshe Chanda, WaterAid

"I could have been educated if we had water close to our home," Ms N'gandwe said. "Now, my children will have no excuse to fail at school.. My children will never go through what I went through."

This International Women's Day, WaterAid is calling on governments to make safe, private toilets and handwashing facilities a priority in homes, schools and healthcare facilities, to address the inherent gender discrimination that comes when these services are lacking.

If we are to celebrate all that women have achieved, surely this basic right, essential for health and dignity, which has held so many women and girls back from their full potential cannot go ignored.

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