She goes to work at the tea estate where her mother plucks tea leaves for a daily wage. Climbing the sloppy hilly estate is no mean task for a teenage girl, who starts her day before dawn.
Savithri, the 17-year-old, is happy as she can support her mother, who fed five mouths, including her paralysed father, with her meagre daily earnings. Being one of the brightest students of the small estate school – Troup Estate Tamil Vidyalaya – with 150 students, poverty struck early in her life and she dropped out from school.
While her two small sisters and brother were crying in hunger and her helpless mother, who spent half her daily wage on her father’s medicine, was also silently crying, Savithri decided to give up her education and look for a job on the estate.
Apart from poverty, if she says the non-availability of a toilet in her school made her stop schooling, will the world believe her?
This is not fiction but a true story of a Sri Lankan girl, who had firmly decided to maintain her dignity. She did not attend school during her menstruation as she could not use the toilet in school, because it was dysfunctional.
This was the day Savithri really and truly decided that she was never going to school again because she was not going through the trauma of not being able to use a toilet when she menstruated and face the humiliation of the other boys and girls in school. This was the last straw for the girl who aspired to become a dancing teacher.
Though it does not directly relate to the issue of school drop-outs, the lack of sanitary facilities in schools is an added reason for some girls in rural Sri Lanka to stop schooling. Poverty being the major cause, other reasons such as poor sanitation facilities at schools are overlooked but silently contribute to the dilemma.
Compared to other countries in the South Asian region, sanitary facilities in Sri Lanka are of a higher standard. But the situation needs to be improved as toilet facilities in many of the rural schools are outdated or beyond repair. In some schools the newly built toilet is locked and only opened during the school interval.
Access to safe water, adequate sanitation and improved hygiene are vital elements for human development to reduce the spread of disease and even death at times. South Asia has progressed in many sectors but still a significant number of people continues to be denied the right to water and sanitation to maintain a healthy and dignified life.
According to WaterAid, an organisation that initiates programs to transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities, of the 1,595 billion people in South Asia, over 1,027 do not use improved sanitation. Over 716 million people practise open defecation and are exposed to several health risks.
The latest UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) report that over 76 percent of South Asia’s population has no access to improved sanitation.
Lal Premanath, General Manager of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) agreed that there were issues with regard to sanitation facilities in schools.
He said there were some schools in the rural areas which do not have toilet facilities and in some schools students were reluctant to use the toilets as they were in a dilapidated state.
“There are lapses in providing water and sanitation facilities to schools by the Government. It is sad to note that there are some schools in rural areas which do not have even a single toilet and children practise open defecation. Each school is given toilet facilities but the school authorities have failed to maintain them properly”, he said.
We spoke to several school principals to assess sanitary facilities in their schools. While saying the situation is manageable with available resources, they emphasised on obtaining better sanitary facilities for children, especially primary students.
Asoka Dissanayake, Principal of D.S. Senanayake Maha Vidyalaya, one of the leading schools in Kandy said some of the toilets needed to be repaired and there was a dire need for toilets for the primary section, which has only one for over 600 children.
He has informed the Provincial authorities about the lapses in sanitary facilities in his annual report.
The Principal of Royal College, Colombo, Upali Gunasekara said the number of toilets in the school was enough and denied receiving any complaints of poor sanitary facilities in the school.
“ I have not received any complaints about children drinking less water due to lack of sanitary facilities”, he said. The school authorities promote good health habits among children and also encourage them to maintain school resources well.
L. Ongaramoorthy, Principal of Jaffna Central College said serious concern was given to the maintenance of toilets and taps and also cleanliness.
“We conduct awareness programs on water and sanitation to improve good habits among children”, he said adding that the sanitary facilities were at a satisfactory level.
Kanagaratnam Sritharan, Principal of Chenkalady Central College, Kalkuda, said more water and sanitary facilities were required where there is not even a single toilet for the primary section which has over 696 children.
“We have only a small well to supply water. I have requested a water tank where over 2,000 gallons of water can be stored”, he said.
A majority of students are from very poor families. The lack of toilet facilities is one major problem faced by the school, which is situated 15km off Batticaloa town. With no water connections, well water is filled in tubs in each toilet. The primary section children share the toilets with the upper class students as there are no toilets in the primary section.
“The small boys do not face many difficulties but girls have to be accompanied by a teacher or an older student to go to the toilet in an emergency. This disturbs their education”, he had complained about the poor facilities to the Zonal Director of Education, Kalkuda, he said.
Though the water and sanitary facilities have been provided to Talawakelle Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, a section of the school, where Grade 6 and 9 classes were being held, was completely denied of a water supply as the system is not powerful enough to supply water to the hilly area. Toilet facilities need to be improved in the school.
“There are over 540 students in the primary section but we have only six toilets. The smaller students face difficulties as their toilets are far away from their section.
We need to build toilets in each section as the terrain of the school is hilly”, R. Krishnaswamy, the principal said.
He said out of 28 toilets in the school, some need urgent repair and educational authorities have been informed.
Water supply being a major problem, the students in the upper classes have to fill water in buckets for toilet use and the cleaning of toilets is done by teachers as the school does not have any staffers other than the security guard.
Over 98 percent of students belong to estate families and nearly 50 percent of them stop schooling due to poverty.
Krishnaswamy said though they lack sanitary facilities, they educate children about good sanitary habits and also how to maintain toilets.
The picture is not so rosy when sanitary facilities in city, urban, and rural schools in Sri Lanka are compared. According to sources there are schools where there is not even a single toilet and children have to go to nearby jungles to relieve themselves.
A recent study by the Public Interest Law Foundation states that many schools have satisfactory sanitation facilities that include a cleaning system, with a few exceptions to this situation.
The survey states that toilets in some schools were not usable due to the lack of water and pits overflowed in the rainy season.
Second, there were no toilets in some cases. Third, in general there were no separate toilets for female teachers and this was a problem.
Fourth, the construction of lavatories (i.e. open drains) devoid of water for male students creates unhygienic conditions, emanates a strong odour and becomes unusable.
Fifth, some male students in many schools urinate in the open. And, finally female students refrain from using the toilets when they are unclean and not in functioning order.
By staying until they go home to use the toilet, they suffer a lot of discomfort and stress. Further this practice can have some impact on the health of students in the long run.
In an era where some elite city dwellers spend huge sums to install luxurious toilets, poor children in rural schools lack even a very basic toilet.
The Government spends over Rs. 100 million to develop water and sanitation facilities for schools, annually. “But the Government alone cannot do everything.
There is no doubt that providing water and sanitation facilities is a major responsibility of the Education Ministry, which has to look into several other major issues in schools. The main issue of poor sanitary facilities in schools is poor maintenance”, Director School Health and Nutrition of the Ministry of Education, Renuka Peiris said.
She said over 80 percent of schools in Sri Lanka, which consists of over 9,600 schools have a good coverage of water and sanitation facilities. “The Ministry has launched a four-year project estimated at Rs. 800 – 900 million in 2010 to provide sanitation facilities to 1,299 schools.
The World Bank, UNICEF and Plan Sri Lanka are the other financial partners of the project, which aimed to solve the sanitary problems in these schools by the end of 2013”, she said.
Peiris said no school building was approved without toilet facilities and all schools in Sri Lanka had toilets but due to poor maintenance over 1,299 schools lack proper sanitary facilities.
“The Government spends money to develop water and sanitation facilities in schools but the school authorities are responsible to maintain them with the help of teachers, children and school development societies. The Ministry conducts awareness programs for schoolchildren under ‘Child friendly WASH (Water, Sanitation and Health) concept to inculcate good habits among children”, she said.
Peiris said Sri Lankan schools needed to have a culture where they give priority to maintaining their resources for sustainable use.
She said the annual survey by the Public Health Inspectors about school health facilities that are submitted to principals would be a guide to adjust their priorities of the school to improve water and sanitation facilities in schools.
Peiris said the simple repair of a tap or a toilet at the initial stage would save the system but negligence on the part of school authorities cost huge amounts of money to correct the damage.
While authorities are happy and proud with the progress made by the Government to provide taps and toilets to schools and with good health indicators that made Sri Lanka top the South Asian region, inquiries carried out by the Sunday Observer found that many children in schools, including some leading schools in Colombo, were reluctant to drink them required amount of water due to poor sanitation facilities and the cleanliness of toilets in schools.
“The school authorities say there were enough toilets for students as well as teachers, but they are poorly maintained and some are beyond use. This has resulted in some urinary problems among schoolchildren as they don’t drink enough water during school hours as they are reluctant to use the toilets which are unclean”, said a urologist who wanted to remain anonymous.
He said the issue needed the serious attention of the authorities as it was still a silent health problem that triggers serious health repercussions in their health in adulthood.
Although diarrhoea is under control due to good hygienic conditions in Sri Lanka, some primary schoolchildren in rural schools suffer due to diarrhoea as a result of poor toilet facilities in schools.
“Compared to the situation in the South Asian region, this is insignificant. But I see a slow increase in diseases spreading due to poor sanitation, especially due to cleanliness among rural schoolchildren”, he said.
According to WaterAid, in Sri Lanka, where infant mortality fell from 141/1000 in the 1940s to 13/1000 at the beginning of this century, Local Government action on sanitation was a critical factor. Recent findings show that there are strong links between improved sanitation and reduction in child mortality.
However, despite strong commitments of the countries of the SAARC region – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bhutan- to provide access to clean water and adequate sanitation, over 7,000 children still die before they reach their fifth birthday everyday and 2.8 million children under five die in South Asia.
Globally, 8.8 million children below the age of five years died due to illnesses caused due to inadequate sanitation and poor quality drinking water.
The increasing number of cases indicate that the promises made to provide clean water and improved sanitation is just gathering dust without turning decisions into actions. This is more evident with every second person defecating in the open and every eight-person drinking contaminated water.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), for every US dollar invested to improve water and sanitation, countries can earn economic returns worth nine US $ by reducing illnesses and death caused due to poor sanitation and poor quality drinking water.
The WHO said despite these economic benefits, South Asian countries except Maldives and Sri Lanka are off-track in achieving the sanitation related MDGs. With notable achievements in improving access to clean drinking water and better sanitation, Sri Lanka will obviously be the best example to show the Government’s commitment towards keeping the promises made at the previous South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN) meetings.
While presenting the success story, Sri Lanka will hopefully put her energies to address the remaining grey areas of the water and sanitation issue to ensure all Sri Lankans are provided with clean drinking water and decent sanitary facilities in its goal of becoming the ‘Wonder of Asia’.
The new resolutions made at the forthcoming SACOSAN meeting that planned to be held in Colombo from April 4 to 7 will encourage SARRC government to utilise more funds and attention to develop the neglected areas in Water and sanitation. They would ultimately contribute to teenagers such as Savithri to continue schooling with dignity when all the schools in the country get toilets, in future.