WASH in schools has been instrumental in improving educational and health outcomes in schools. The inclusion of WASH facilities in schools leads to an increase in enrolment and attendance, promotes healthy hygiene behaviors, and addresses gender and social inequality in classrooms. To maximize the potential of WASH interventions in India, it is imperative to ensure that sanitation and hygiene facilities in the country are properly maintained, remain functional and sustainable, and are accessible equitably and equally by all school children.
Access to adequate Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene facilities in schools does not only form an essential component of children’s right to quality education but also is extremely significant in guaranteeing holistic development and overall well-being of students. Inclusion of WASH in schools forms an integral component of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (targets 4.a, 6.1, 6.2)1 and has been greatly emphasized upon in order to make the educational experience more enriching for the child. To fulfill the basic requisites of a good WASH program, a school must have Gender-segregated toilets with adequate and private menstrual hygiene management facilities for girls, sustainable and sufficient handwashing facilities, and clean and safe drinking water. Children should be made well-versed with daily hygiene practices, and young girls should be trained in menstrual hygiene management with the assistance of female teachers.2 The benefits of having functional WASH facilities in schools have been observed through improved enrolment numbers and health in children. The impact of WASH in schools has been globally recognized in maximizing access to primary education, decreasing the number of dropouts, reducing child mortality rates, and tackling gender inequality in classrooms.
ASSESSING THE IMPACT OF INCLUSION OF WASH FACILITIES ON CHILDREN’S EDUCATIONAL AND HEALTH OUTCOMES
For the longest time, inadequate WASH facilities in schools in India have kept millions of children out of schools. Lack of private sanitation facilities in schools can hinder a holistic educational experience for children. This is especially the case for girls, who are forced to miss out on school due to a lack of proper menstrual management facilities. Moreover, female students have expressed additional fear of assault and harassment while trying to seek isolated and private spaces for toilet purposes during school hours, due to the absence of washrooms in their schools. Due to lack of adequate WASH arrangements, children experience heightened vulnerability to communicable and water-borne illnesses like cholera and tend to hold the urge to relieve themselves, leading to additional health hazards. Thousands of children have irregular attendance, miss out on important exams and drop out of schools due to inadequate WASH arrangements. Furthermore, inadequate WASH facilities in schools not only impact the physical health of children but adversely affect their mental well-being as well by causing psychological distress in students.
The realization of proper and functional WASH facilities in schools has gained immense importance in the welfare policy process in India. Over the years, numerous policy interventions at the grassroots level have yielded positive results. Interventions like Swachh Bharat: Swachh Vidyalaya (SBSV) by the Government of India have positively impacted enrolment, attendance, and retention rates in schools as well as children’s overall health and sanitation practices.3 Universal sanitation programs targeted at the inclusion of WASH in schools have garnered immense support from governments and international institutions like UNICEF in India.
Research studies over the past few decades have consistently shown the positive impacts of WASH interventions on children’s health and educational outcomes. Take the case of the Sanitation and Hygiene Education (SSHE) program launched in 1999 by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Five years post the initiation of the program, the number of school latrines built by academic year was more than 90,000. A research study4 highlighted the impact of this initiative on educational outcomes, and the results were extremely encouraging: overall enrolment in primary and upper primary education increased by 12% and 8% respectively, although the improvement in female enrolment was much more significant. In addition, there was a significant decrease in dropout rates in the case of both girls as well as boys. More children appeared for and passed in middle school board exams. More importantly, the study explored the significance of the type of school latrines built as well and concluded that in the case of older girls, enrolment increases substantially when the latrines being constructed are sex-specific in nature. This is clearly evident of how the presence of private and secure WASH arrangements is a significant decisive factor in school enrolment in the case of pubescent-age girls. Additionally, sex-specific toilets also promote more female teachers to take up employment, the study revealed. Private toilets also instilled a sense of safety and security in the case of both girls and young boys.
A study carried out in Kerala in collaboration with UNICEF5 examined the health outcomes of inclusion of proper WASH arrangements in schools. The study revealed that even after four years of the completion of the construction of WASH facilities in schools, significant positive impacts continued to be experienced. Regularity in attendance increased with children no longer feeling the need to go home in case they needed to defecate. Girls reported significantly fewer problems while on their periods (when compared to schools in the control group that had no WASH facilities); and children were better informed about the importance of hand washing and sanitation. In fact, the study reported that “95% or more of children report handwashing before eating in intervention schools and 61% in control schools”. Studies also show that WASH in schools helps in curbing incidences of diarrhea, soil-transmitted helminths, acute respiratory infections, and other WASH-related diseases in children.6 In addition, practicing proper sanitation and hygiene management in schools has shown to reduce absences due to WASH-related illness in schools, as revealed by certain studies.7 It is also important to note that researchers have emphasized that better impacts are associated with multiple and combinations of interventions- for example, toilet construction in schools when combined with the inclusion of waste management and soap washing facilities, as well as regular cleaning and maintenance, leads to better results.8
Providing safe, adequate, and private WASH facilities in schools is extremely instrumental in encouraging gender as well as social equality, dignity, and equity. WASH in schools has proved extremely important in improving the quality of life of students and positively affecting their learning performance. Inevitably, instilling healthy sanitation and hygiene practices in children at a young age will hold life-long benefits for them.
The inclusion of WASH facilities in schools has proved to extremely instrumental in building healthy hygiene management practices in children and positively impacting attendance rates, enrolment, and promoting overall well-being in students. Safe WASH arrangements significantly lower the risk of potential health hazards that school-going children are exposed to. Results from researches done all over India emphasize the importance of having proper WASH facilities in schools to better facilitate a child’s educational experience and development. While significant progress has been achieved to ensure that schools in India are equipped with adequate WASH facilities, there is still a long way to go. It is imperative to ensure that the functionality and sustainability of such facilities are maintained, and coverage is expanded to include schools even in the remotest areas. A significant amount of work still needs to be undertaken to ensure that the quality of water being provided is extremely safe, toilets, taps, and waste management facilities are well maintained and cleaned regularly9. Regular inspection will also lead to stricter compliance and proper maintenance of hygiene and sanitation standards. Menstruation management should be taught and discussed in a sensitive but open manner by female teachers. Methods of waste management that are environmentally conscious and sustainable should be adopted and taught to children. Lastly, awareness holds a very important role in guaranteeing success to any policy intervention. Thus, it is imperative that the inclusion of WASH in schools be supplemented by educational and awareness programs to make children understand the importance of hygiene and sanitation.