Improving hygiene facilities to keep girls in school

Good water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities have a huge impact in schools, and can prevent girls dropping out of education early.

Jaime Gill
©UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Jaime Gill
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Jaime Gill
30 March 2021

January 2021, Takeo Province - “Schools have changed so much in the 32 years I’ve worked in education,” said Nop Saroeun, 51, Director of Ang Braser primary school, Takeo. He began his career in the shadow of the Khmer Rouge genocide, with the Cambodian education system in ruins and its teachers almost all killed. "Back then, we cared about quantity above all. We just wanted to get children back into school, as many as possible. Now we think a lot more about quality. We want children to get a really good education, all of them.”

Part of this drive for better education means making sure that not only is the quality of teaching improved but that schools can support a better learning environment for all children. Good quality  toilet facilities and accommodations made for personal hygiene are an important part of this: although they may not sound as fundamental as textbooks, their absence can lead to children dropping out of education. 

The problem is particularly acute for girls. Previous studies by UNICEF have found that female students reported often feeling unsafe or scared when using toilets due to a range of factors mostly involving boys’ behaviour.

The challenges are aggravated when there are no toilets reserved for use by girls, and when privacy measures such as locks are not in place. When girls begin to menstruate, many find trying to manage their sanitation needs in such conditions impossible, and begin to absent themselves from school or even drop out.

©UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Jaime Gill
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Jaime Gill
Director Nop Saroeun is proud of Ang Braser Primary School's record in improving the quality of its learning environments.

Three years ago, Ang Braser primary school in Takeo was in just this position. Teacher Tork Ravy, 37, said "our systems were pretty bad. We had eight toilets in theory, but only four worked, and only two of them worked well. There were no handwashing facilities, really, just a bucket of water which got dirtier and dirtier, and there were no separate toilets for girls. They didn't even complain, they just went home."

In 2019, the school submitted a proposal through the Tramkak District Office of Education to improve this situation. With funding from the government of the United Kingdom four new toilets were built, handwashing stations put in place, a waste management system installed, and facilities put in place for the disposal of sanitation pads. In addition to the new WASH facilities, UNICEF supported the provision of training on menstrual hygiene management to the school’s WASH committee, made up of teachers and community members who could then disseminate information and advice to girls in appropriate settings.

School teacher Ms. Ravy says this work has had a significant impact: "Students are more confident now. Before they would just stay at home if they were menstruating or even drop out. Now they will come to a teacher and talk to them. I might take them aside and lend them a sanitary pad or explain how it can be used. It can all happen here at school, no need to leave."

Ms. Ravy says that the world is very different from when she was a girl. "I was frightened when I got my first period, it took me by surprise because nobody had told me about it. I thought I was sick until I told my mother and she explained. We didn’t have social media back then, there wasn’t so much information. I don’t want this new generation to grow up without knowledge. I want to help them build their confidence in all areas of their lives.”