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MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA feature story for Iraq

© IMC Iraq/2008

Staff from the UNICEF-supported International Medical Corps work with community members to install water tanks in the Latifiya sub-district of Baghdad Governerate. Access by humanitarian groups to the area continues to be hampered by security concerns.

SAFE WATER AND SANITATION IMPROVES QUALITY OF EDUCATION TO SCHOOL CHILDREN IN IRAQ

LATIFIYA, Baghdad Governorate, Iraq, September 2009 - The morning sun peaks through the cracked windows at the Al Haq primary school in Latifiya sub-district in the Baghdad governorate.  A large classroom is nearly empty of supplies and desks - there isn't even a blackboard.   A handful of children sit listening as their teacher recites their lessons for the day.  Muthanna, age 10, is among them.  The deep black eyes in her impatient face dart around the room, paying scant attention to the teacher.  Her lower abdomen aches, but she will not ask to be excused to the bathroom. 

The bathrooms of the school are filthy, unsanitary and often clogged up with sewage.  Muthanna's anxiety grows as she recalls her friend who had an accident last week and was too ashamed to return to school.  The daily battle between the disgust of using the school toilets, the fear and humiliation of not using them which could result in an accident, as well as the uncomfortable necessity of relieving herself torments her mind. 

A succession of war, sanctions and extreme sectarian strife over the last 30 years has deprived the 30,000 residents in the rural villages of Al Dayrah, Al Haq and Al Zuhoor in Latifiya sub-district of basic services.  Security concerns over the last several years have additionally restricted access by humanitarian groups. This has forced residents and children to endure the increasing deterioration of their education, health care, and water and sanitation services. 

With the slight improvement in security in 2009, UNICEF joined forces with International Medical Corps (IMC) and sent an assessment team to the area.  “No NGO has come to our village since 1978,” recalls Al Haq’s Mukhtar, the village chief.  “IMC’s arrival is uplifting to us all as long needed support will be provided to our people.”
 
Recognizing that poor water quality and sanitation services in the three primary schools in Latifiya jeopardized the health of 1,400 students and reduced their attendance, ability to learn, as well as created anxiety, UNICEF and IMC teamed together to rehabilitate the dilapidated water and sewage system in all three schools.  Upon its completion, Muthanna jubilantly states, "Now I’m not embarrassed about using the latrine.  There is water to flush the toilets and to wash our hands.  We don't have to worry about getting dirty when we use them!"

In addition, UNICEF worked with IMC to develop teams that inform the children about how to practice personal hygiene, dispose of waste and other healthy living habits.  This will help reduce the risk of contracting a preventable disease.  In Iraq’s villages, information is primarily passed from person to person; thus, the impact of the new hygiene lessons on the schoolchildren and community at-large has been significant. 

"After we were taught about the proper way to wash our hands and practice hygiene I told my brothers and sisters and parents,” confirms Muthanna. “Now we are always washing our hands with soap before eating so we won't get sick. I am glad IMC came to our school as now I know the ways that dirty water makes me sick and how to keep my health in a good condition."

UNICEF is supporting the rehabilitation and upgrading of water and sanitation services to around 20,000 children in 42 schools, and is advocating with the government to ensure all children have access to child-friendly water and sanitation facilities in schools.