Inclusive education provides safe water, safe sanitation and basic handwashing, for all

Reaching the most vulnerable communities with water, sanitation and hygiene.

men standing in doorway
16 September 2019

“The bathroom was ugly, not healthy.  I don’t use the bathroom at school.  I use bathroom before I leave home in the morning, when I go home at lunch and until I go home again,” says 11year-old Victoria Patt of Standard 5 at Chunox Roman Catholic School.

“The bathrooms had pee on the floor, stool in the toilets and were very smelly.  At break time, I ask to go to my grandma’s home next door to use the toilet there,” says 12year-old Nazeal Melendez of Standard 5 at Chunox Roman Catholic School.

Chunox Village in the Corozal District of northern Belize where the school is located requires a full hour travel from the main town.  In a community with dusty white limestone streets, majority of homes are small humble dwelling, with still very much used outdoor pit latrines.  Water reaches the villagers via yard faucets serviced by a community water system managed by a Village Water Board.  Community members pay a small fee to have the service of the hand pumps or stand pipes in their yards. Wells are still present on some household properties and may still be used for washing and cooking.  Like many small communities, primary education is the highest level of education available in the village, and many still do not go on to high school due to cost of travel and supporting education supplies.  With that, ensuring children can make full use of their school days and gain the best education experience, School Principals like Mr. Mario Mesh have a challenge to keep the school and supporting bathroom facilities operable and accessible. 

The 41 year veteran educator has been principal for 4 years to his school with a population of 193 primary schoolers, 29 pre-schoolers and 5 students who attend the school’s special education programme.  With an almost 50/50 gender distribution between boys and girls, Mr. Mesh says “We are excited to have the new facilities.  It will be a great addition for the new school year.  It is important that the female bathrooms will be outfitted with private stalls, doors, garbage bins and a mirror so the girls can manage their menstrual requirements.  Teachers will also have facilities for males and females, but the most important addition has been the ramp and special bathroom for our special needs children. We are truly inclusive now.”

The school did not previously have such a special facility but the amendments now include the new special needs facility with a larger room, wider door and ramp access.  The five children with special needs span the service categories of learning disabilities, autism, attention deficit and hyperactive disorder (ADHD), as well as health and physical conditions that confine two of the children to a wheelchair.  While the stories of the students’ integration into the full school life are heartwarming, the gap remained in the lack of bathroom facilities that were sanitary and accessible.

“Here at our school, we have a special education class that caters to our students.  At break time, the other children play with and include our special needs students.  They are not bullied or teased.  But when it was time for the bathroom, we could not accommodate them.  We had accidents causing us to have to take the children home or parents not wanting to send them to school,“ says teacher for the special education programme Mr. Fidel Santoya, a teacher for 20 years who recently took over responsibility for the 5 children in his class.

“There are no words to describe how thankful we are and how welcoming this is for our children.  This now takes the inclusiveness for our children to another level – no teasing, no bullying and now a bathroom that will respect their dignity,” says Mr. Santoya.

For Ms. Sweimi Tun the teacher for the Standard 5 class, she is excited that teachers too will have their own facilities and not need to share the children’s space or wait until they go home to use the bathroom.  “This project is really good.  All teachers want the best and safety for our students.  What we had before was not healthy, was not safe.  Now we are happy and anticipate the return to school in the new school year.”

men standing in doorways

Despite progress towards achieving universal access to basic WASH, there are still huge gaps in the quality of services provided. Today, globally about 1 in 3 people lack access to safe drinking water and more than half lack safe sanitation.  In Belize, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2015 (MICS5) shows that 93% of Belize’s population are living in households using improved sanitation facilities and only 82% of the households have a specific place for handwashing observed. The UNICEF WASH assessment and evaluation (2011) for all primary schools in Belize, however, showed that only 21% of schools have adequate sanitation (improved toilets where the quantity meets international standards) and 87% do not have toilets accessible to students with physical disabilities. The urban schools struggled more with sanitation, particularly in providing sufficient quantity. 52% did not meet standards for quantity of handwashing facilities based on 30-40 students per facility (common standards in the region).

Just down the road, the situation at the Chunox Seventh Day Adventist School was much the same.  A population of 148 primary schoolers and 32 pre-schoolers was desperately in need of new bathroom facilities.  Principal Mr. Daniel Montalvo teaching for 24 years but with the school for 19 years have seen the school through its many transitions.  He reports that just a few years ago, parents, school management and community built the new school building.  An active PTA was doing its best to keep the existing bathroom clean, but the conditions were not acceptable.

“God is more than good,” he says, “This is a total transformation for our children.  We have move swiftly to activate the Parent Teachers Association and are ready with a parent who will take responsibility to ensure bathrooms are kept clean.”

Evidence of an involved parent group was clear as our team inspected the still ongoing construction, parents collecting report cards for the end of school year dropped by to view the new bathroom facilities.  This coincidental occurrence gave us the chance to meet Selmi Tun, a mother of two boys at the school who will be the parent responsible for the cleaning and upkeep of the bathrooms.

“This is a good thing for our school.  I am happy to be able to help.  It is important especially for our girls to have a clean and good bathroom at school,” says Tun.

Chunox is not alone as in the main Corozal Town at Church of Christ Primary School and half hour away at San Pedro Government School, the excitement for the new facilities were as well evident.  Reports of the facilities not being satisfactory in conditions or student ratios are now being transformed, as the schools will be equipped with additional bathroom stalls, doors for privacy, mirrors for self-care and handwashing facilities accommodating boys, girls, teachers and appropriately and separately designed for pre-schoolers - all welcomed additions filling an immense need.

“Children deserve clean bathrooms and handwashing facilities that work and are accessible.  Having basic handwashing, safe water and safe sanitation make the children want to learn, feel comfortable happy to stay at school and eliminate interruption to the school sessions.  Establishing these standard protocols, through a WASH Multi-Sectoral Body will ensure that this is not for a moment but a guaranteed quality of facilities and services,” says Denise Robateau - UNICEF Belize’s Early Childhood Development and Education Officer with responsibility for WASH and Emergency.

During this project, UNICEF working alongside the Government of Belize, specifically the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and school managements collaborated to ensure the facilities were constructed and available for children at optimal standards.  While the project in Chunox Roman Catholic School, Chunox Seventh Day Adventist School, Church of God in Christ Primary School and San Pedro Government School was to ensure that the children would greet the new school year with clean bathroom and handwashing facilities, accessible to all, the WASH Multi-Sectoral Body is ensuring that the development of Standard Operating Procedures would ensure the proper construction and maintenance of the facilities for all schools nationwide.

classroom setting

The proper maintenance for the facilities is essential to the Ministry of Education and through its District Education Centers, officers like Mr. Oder Bautista, responsible for Early Childhood Development and the Health and Family Life Education programme in Corozal, joins with UNICEF to implement the training programmes for teachers and schools’ administration for oversight of facilities and incorporating the information and WASH education in the school curriculum.

“What was in these schools was not healthy for the children and placed them at risk for different diseases.  Now, we have an opportunity to instill the lessons on standards for the upkeep of the facilities and work with the HFLE programme to expand the knowledge on water and sanitation health.  We need more sensitization of the students,” said Mr. Bautista.

Previously in the schools, handwashing basins were in the classrooms and did not have running water.  A bucket of water and a container was used to put water into these plastic basins for handwashing.  That system was not the most effective as children once leaving the bathroom forgot and did not wash or the water in the plastic basins sat there for periods of time and got dirty from the many children using it.  There was no vigilant system to monitor that each child was using clean water to wash hands.  The new facilities are equipped with basins, running water, soap and soap dispensers as well as tissue paper dispensers for drying hands and bins for disposal of waste papers.

“The running water, soap dispensers, tissue dispensers, ramps for accessibility, individual stalls with doors and separate facilities for boys and girls are now part of the standard protocols we insist upon,” says Denise Robateau.  “These will now be incorporated in SOPs that will be documented, circulated to all schools and used in trainings for school administration.  Anyone wanting to construct bathrooms for schools will have to utilize these standards as the guidelines.  We want to ensure that these facilities are built to one accepted standard, but that also the necessary training of administration, teachers, parents and students will be a part of the standards”

Mere access is not enough. If the water isn’t clean, isn’t safe to drink or is far away, and if toilet access is unsafe or limited, then we’re not delivering for children.  Children and their families in poor and rural communities are most at risk of being left behind.  Closing inequality gaps in the accessibility, quality and availability of water, sanitation and hygiene should be at the heart of planning strategies.  To achieve universal access to WASH, and to realize the rights of every child, governments and partners must focus on closing inequality gaps by targeting those who remain unserved and underserved, reducing inequalities in WASH service levels, while establishing standards and protocols for achieving safe water and safe sanitation.                       #ForEveryChild, good sanitation and health  

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