For most people, probably their least favorite memory of high school is of the toilet facilities. Now imagine your high school with just one toilet. That's right, one toilet for the entire student body – boys and girls. Kind of a nightmare scenario, right? Well, it turns out there are places around the world where this is exactly the case. And it is female students who pay the heaviest price for poor sanitation in schools with falling grades, absenteeism, and sometimes even completely dropping out of school.
In Bangladesh, however, some schools are adopting a simple, low-cost model that is becoming a catalyst for improving sanitation and hygiene in schools and preventing further classroom casualties.
The Matipara Samiruddin High School is located in the Rajbari Sadar district about 75 kilometers to the west of Dhaka. With a student body of just over 500 pupils, the girls here used to share just one toilet with the boys. As they told me during my visit, aside from the awkwardness of the situation, the toilet had an insufficient water supply and was so unhygienic that most girls had given up and just avoided the place altogether.
During the onset of their menstrual cycles, many girls chose to simply stay home. I met student Ramuna Kahtun, who often missed classes because of the toilet situation and had dropped in rank in her secondary class. Her parents initially gave her flak for not attending school, but when they saw the state of the toilet facility, they gave her a pass.
For both teachers and students at Matipara, the lack of safe, separate and private toilet and washing facilities had gone far enough. They decided to take advantage of a health and hygiene program offered by the local branch of an NGO known as BRAC.
Before visiting Matipara High School, I interviewed Dr. Babar Kabir, director of Water Sanitation and Hygiene, at BRAC headquarters in Dhaka to get an overview of the program. BRAC is currently in the second year of a five year program to install 4,500 new latrines in 150 sub-districts, like the Matapri school latrines.
BRAC's approach is to encourage the community to "invest" in the school hygiene movement by putting up $500 USD for each new latrine, roughly half the cost, with the school system picking up the rest of the construction cost.
BRAC also works with the schools to oganize student brigades, comprised of male and female students who coordinate with the principle and a female teacher to maintain toilet supplies (like low cost sanitary napkins) and monitor the general hygienic situation of the toilets. BRAC also helps raise awareness about sanitation and hygiene issues at "cluster meetings" held every third month in the communities they serve.
The overall impact of the BRAC approach at schools like Matipara High School has been great. At Matipari, the boys toilet was expanded to include two stalls and access to clean water, while a two stall girls latrine was installed on the second floor at the opposite end of the school building from the boys latrines. The student-monitored and separate latrines have not only improved absenteeism, but also have improved the overall quality of education the students receive at the school. Rumuna Kahtun is currently back in school full-time and maintains a strong grade point average in the 10th grade.