Opinion: 4 actions to unblock sanitation in schools

Children and teachers will be the first to tell you just how important school toilets are. When 15,000 school children in the United Kingdom were asked to describe their ideal school, the most important criteria included by nearly every child was "clean toilets that lock.” Yet in low- and middle-income countries, two-thirds of schools do not have a useable toilet and globally, 698 million children do not have access to basic sanitation.

From the perspective of Unilever’s hygiene brand, Domestos, the challenge is not how to install more toilets but how to keep existing ones maintained and operational so children can, and want to, use them. It’s also about how we, as a brand, can help to create positive sanitation habits that serve the existing generation and those that follow.

“The children would not go to the toilets, they would say they’re smelly, it’s not easy to go in there. They would mess themselves up or hold themselves until they go home,” said Tengiwe Molidemthuni, a teacher at Ebuhleni Primary School in Soweto, South Africa.

The operation and maintenance of school toilets is gathering more attention among the development community globally. Over the years, there has been a strong focus on infrastructure, and rightly so, but the reality is a toilet is only beneficial if it’s usable, and schools have the resources to maintain them.

An urgent situation made worse

At a recent panel discussion, Nicolas Osbert, chief of water, sanitation, and hygiene for UNICEF India, said “the government can provide facilities but if they are not maintained properly, they will decay and not serve the purpose. The current budget for operations and maintenance in schools [in India] is ten times less than what is necessary.” His example is indicative of budgets around the world.

In addition, a recent report from the World Health Organization highlighted a five-fold increase in the pace of activity required to achieve total sanitation in schools by 2030.

Nobody could foresee the COVID-19 pandemic and the enormous pressure this would place on the focus and funding needed to address the gap in school sanitation. Yet, the International Aid Transparency Initiative reports donor funding for water and sanitation has fallen by 30% this year.

We now find ourselves in a serious situation: Funding is dropping, the importance of sanitation and hygiene in schools has never been more apparent, and the gap toward total sanitation in schools is getting bigger, with 66% of schools listed as having basic sanitation in 2016 down to 63% in 2019.

How to accelerate improved school sanitation

We can’t afford to let COVID-19 affect the gains made. Based on our experience of working in sanitation for the past 10 years, we believe there are four actions required to unblock sanitation in schools:

Opinion: 4 actions to unblock sanitation in schools

1. We must make the operation and maintenance of school toilets simple

On World Toilet Day, Nicole Siegmund, principal adviser for Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit’s regional Fit for School program in Manila, the Philippines, said during a panel discussion that national and international standards for WASH in schools remain unattainable for many because of the complexity of the task. Instead, breaking sanitation into small steps that do not require massive resource upfront can begin schools on the journey to improved sanitation.

This philosophy lies at the heart of Domestos’ schools program, Cleaner Toilets Brighter Futures, and we believe it is the simplicity of the program that has resulted in such significant, sustained impact on toilets and behavior. In two years, we’ve reached over 70,000 children in Turkey, Vietnam, and South Africa, including the children at Ebuhleni Primary School.

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Preliminary research that has yet to be published has shown that the usability of toilets has improved four-fold in CTBF schools and cleanliness has improved by two-thirds. Separate research conducted in CTBF schools in Turkey showed a 25% increase in toilet usage by children, indicating behaviour change is underway.

2. We must continue to raise awareness of the issue and keep it on the global agenda

Campaigning for sanitation in schools is critical and the goal should be to spark discussion and knowledge at all levels from the upper echelons of government to communities at a grassroots level.

Sustained behavior change at an institutional and community level is a long journey and before action can happen we must start with awareness. By World Toilet Day in 2022, I’d like to see organizations sharing their successes and celebrating impact rather than again having to flag the need for urgent action.

3. We can move faster when we actively seek out the most beneficial partnerships

Private sector organizations are increasingly aware of the power a purpose-led brand can wield in terms of social impact and profit for shareholders. The desire for sustainable economies is no new thing. Whether you’re a brand that’s retrofitting a social mission or a brand that’s evolved because of a social mission, the fact remains that no business, government, or community can have the impact needed when they work alone. Businesses, governments, and NGOs must work in partnership to accelerate impact and they can only do this when they share the same vision.

Domestos works at a global level with UNICEF on sanitation, reaching some 28 million people thus far with a focus on sanitation in India. However, for our own school’s program, we partner locally with specialist organizations, like GIZ in Southeast Asia because when it comes to school sanitation each country has unique challenges and operating environments. We’re actively seeking more partners in order to expand the program into new regions and achieve the impact needed.

4. We must talk about funding and resourcing

Despite good intentions, nothing will happen without financing. A United Nations survey shows that half of the business community believes achieving the Sustainable Development Goals are a government responsibility. We passionately beg to differ. While it may be the responsibility of a government to create a framework and an enabling environment, the implementation of solutions should be a shared responsibility.

Part of the responsibility is for private sectors to increase investment and actively seek out partnerships, and part of the responsibility is also with governments to unlock further funding by looking across ministerial portfolios.

With these four pillars in place, I believe we can come close to making better sanitation in schools a reality by 2030.

A simple statement from a student at Ebuhleni Primary School perfectly captures the true purpose of prioritizing school sanitation: “Now the toilets are clean, I like going to school.” This is the refrain we want to hear the world over.