India has around 1.4 million schools, and the government has a good track record for providing funds for buildings and basic school equipment. However, there is rarely sufficient funding for adequate and long-lasting sanitation facilities. Across the country, many schools have toilets that are in a state of disrepair and many more have no toilets at all. UNICEF guidance requires a minimum of one toilet per 25 girls in a school. But statistics show that over 250,000 schools have no toilets whatsoever (U-DISE), 400,000 schools have toilets on their record books, but many are unusable, and a further 400,000 are communal, meaning there are no separate facilities for girls.
Children routinely have to leave the school premises to find a place to relieve themselves. Not only is this deeply humiliating, but it also puts them at risk of taunting, harassment, or worse. Education for girls is already undervalued within many of the communities we work, so a lack of toilets at school is yet another reason for girls to drop out of school and miss out on the opportunity for education. Parents also feel increasingly uncomfortable about their teenage daughters being exposed to this risk.
Completing secondary education has a huge impact on the future life, not just of the girl, but also of her children, who will then be more likely to complete their own education. One head teacher told us that if a girl starts her period at school, she would generally have to go home. However, she can’t walk home alone, so another girl has to accompany her. That girl then can’t walk back to school alone, so yet another girl has to go too, so that the two of them can walk back to school together. All in all, three girls miss out on their lessons because they don’t have adequate toilet facilities. The more school they miss, the more likely they are to drop out altogether.
On a daily basis we provide sanitation for over 33,000 Indian schoolchildren. Our ecosan toilets provide schoolchildren with a safe, clean and hygienic place to go to the toilet. We work in primary, middle, and senior schools. Often, the children tell their family about their new ecosan at school, and become increasingly unhappy about not having toilets at home. This motivates the community to explore their own sanitation options, which creates an opening for us to start working with the villages directly. We have often found that when we build a middle or senior school ecosan, we build family units in the village as well.
Keeping children in school has many long-term benefits for young people:
One extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10% (UNESCO)
171 million people in low-income countries could be lifted out of poverty if they left school with basic reading skills – equivalent to a 12% cut in world poverty (UNESCO)
There is a direct impact on family size – educated women have fewer children (UNESCO)
Children of mothers with secondary education or higher are twice as likely to survive beyond the age of five, compared with those who have no education (UNESCO)
A key area of our work is to support young girls. The middle and senior school ecosans have a private washing and changing area for the older girls to change their sanitary towels. This reduces girls’ feelings of shame and embarrassment around menstruation.
Our schools programme has been incredibly successful and schools have proven to be an excellent foundation on which to build support for our ecosan model. The hygiene and toilet use training we provide increases the chances that the facilities will be used, and this is reinforced and followed up long after the actual construction phase has been completed.
Arthi, a 9th grade student from Guruvanappanpettai village in Cuddalore, described how embarrassed girls were at her school about menstruation. With no place to cleanly and safely change their sanitary towels, girls were constantly anxious about staining their dresses and the devastating shame that they feel when this happens. As a result, many of her friends would miss classes or drop out of school altogether.
“When I was in 7th grade aged 12, Sanitation First constructed our new sanitary block. Until then we all used to rush to the small and damaged toilet with dried faeces and sanitary towels, still we were forced to use it. Many times, most of us could not use the toilet as there were too many people waiting to use it. We were forced to go back to class and sit uncomfortably. This was one of the most unbearable experiences.
Now with the newly constructed sanitary block, with urinals and an exclusive washroom, all our problems are solved. Changing our sanitary pads is much easier. Now that I understand the need for and comfort in having a toilet, I have spoken to my parents and urged them to construct a similar toilet at home.”
Abhinaya is a 12th grade student attending the Kurinjipadi Government Girls Higher Secondary School in the Cuddalore District, Tamil Nadu. Not too long ago, Abhinaya’s school provided toilets for its teachers only, and students were forced to go to the toilet in the open, in an unclean, unsafe space behind the school, between a warehouse and a hospital. Thanks to Sanitation First, a new, purpose-built, sanitary complex has been built on her school site, providing Abhinaya and her friends with a clean and safe place to go to the toilet. Abhinaya tells Sanitation First what clean, safe sanitation facilities at school mean to her: