Students in class but agents of change in the community

How improving the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities in one school has promoted behavioural change in the community.

Lydia Darby
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Lydia Darby

26 November 2019

In light of the 30th Anniversary on the Convention of the Rights of the Child, UNICEF Cambodia is emphasising the right of every child to the highest attainable standard of health.

Sambo District, Kratie – August 2019. When it comes to making good water, sanitation and hygiene habits sustainable, a change in a behaviour is essential. Beyond providing the facilities for handwashing, toilets and waste disposal, education must ignite a change in the way people think about hygiene. It must inspire people to seek out safe water and sanitation in their homes, schools and communities. UNICEF Cambodia are working with BORDA and the Ministry of Youth, Education and Sports to bridge the gap between building toilets and hand-washing basins, and people actually using them. Under Primark funding, 125 schools in Kratie, Ratanakiri, Takeo, Kampong Speu and Svay Rieng have been selected for the WASH in schools project implementation and O Kandea primary school is one of them. 

The director of O Kandea School, Mr. Min Seangly, described what his school was like before, “it was hard because I had to go out and buy expensive water tanks. I had no water source and the toilet storage tank used to leak. The environment was dirty and smelled bad.”

UNICEF and BORDA project renovated and improved the facilities at this school, providing teachers with the opportunity to re-emphasise education about water-borne diseases and the dangers of poor hygiene. Not only has absenteeism been reduced, according to Seangly, but students are happier and their behaviour has changed for the better. “Now I have to spend more money to pump the water!” he laughed, “but I don’t mind. I’m happy that the children can learn in a good environment.” The garbage is separated, hands are washed at critical times, the toilets are used and there is no open defecation. Students are seeking out safe sanitation.

UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Lydia Darby
Two primary school students, age 13 and 14, with their school director Min Seangly. discussing with UNICEF staff their conversations about WASH at home.

But the project here is extending beyond the classroom. Students are taking their new knowledge and healthy habits home with them, leading to slow but steady behaviour change in the community. Min Seangly explained that families feel embarrassed when their children are using the toilet and they are not. Effective WASH behaviour change strategies focus on emotions and habits and go beyond WASH behaviour change models centred on the fear of disease and epidemics is important. 

The fourteen-year-old girl, pictured above (middle), is a student in grade six. When she gets home, she’s a teacher to her mother, Chay Thongphay, and younger sister. “I learnt about handwashing during important times and to drink safe, clear-looking water”, Thongphay tells us. When we visited her home, her mother offered us a glass of water to drink, explaining, “my daughter taught me about safe drinking water. Now I boil it first, to help remove dangerous bacteria”.

They don’t have a toilet at their home, and after learning about the dangers of open defecation at school, this student convinced Thongphay to invest in their own toilet. They’re currently saving up to purchase their first one, after understanding how it will improve the health of their family. 

UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Lydia Darby
14-year-old student with her mother, whom she has recently convinced to purchase a toilet for their family home. Sambo district. Kratie. August 2019.

O Kandea school is encouraging students to share these messages at home. They have held meetings at school, in partnership with BORDA, to support the children’s efforts. The mother explains how good hygiene habits were promoted, as well as filtered and well-water.

Cambodia has the highest rate of open defecation in the region, with eight in ten of the poorest rural Cambodians defecating out in fields, in open bodies of water, or other open spaces, rather than using a toilet.[1] Human waste near waterways and houses spreads diseases quickly, putting children and their families at risk. Kratie’s Sambo district is also affected by schistosomiasis, a parasitic infection which impacts memory and learning.[2] Consequently, preventing open defecation is helping eliminate this neglected tropical disease.

The UNICEF WASH in Schools programme strives to ensure that all children learn in a safe and clean environment. The programme helps to end open defecation in schools and make students agents of change to end open defecation at home – like this young WASH advocate.


[1] UNICEF. 2019. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. https://www.unicef.org/cambodia/water-sanitation-and-hygiene

[2] WHO. 2019. Cambodia, Neglected Tropical Diseases. http://www.wpro.who.int/cambodia/topics/neglected_tropical_diseases/en/