Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services coupled with poor hygiene practices affect millions of children every day through illness, death, impoverishment and lack of opportunities for development. When schools lack private and decent sanitation facilities, girls in particular are denied access to education. Parents are less productive due to illness and time taken collecting water and thus less able to provide adequately for their children’s needs. In response UNICEF focuses on supporting sanitation and hygiene behaviour change as well as improving access to water supply. Data show that the poorest are most likely to lack water supply and sanitation, particularly the latter, which is one of the most inequitably distributed interventions. Inequities in access to water and sanitation are made worse by humanitarian disasters and fragile contexts.
Why partner with religious communities for water, sanitation and hygiene programming?
“Linking faith with construction of water facilities and toilets in schools does not sound like an obvious link, yet it is important. Water plays a central role in many religions and beliefs around the world: source of life, it represents (re)birth. Water cleans the body, and by extension purifies it, and these two main qualities confer a highly symbolic (even sacred) status to water. Water is therefore a key element in ceremonies and religious rites. This is reflected in the way people use water, in the way they design water systems and the need for accessibility of water for cleansing after toilet use or washing hands.”
Water is the most essential element for human survival and as such has a prominent place in many of the world’s faith traditions. Cleansing with water is a nearly universal metaphor for spiritual cleansing, expressed in rituals such as bathing in the Ganges River for Hindus, washing before prayers in a mosque or baptism in the Christian tradition.
“Water symbolizes God’s presence, which is why Krishna says, ‘I am the taste in water’.” (Bhagavad Gita 7:8)
Clean water is the foundation of good hygiene and sanitation, which many religious traditions promote with prescriptions about waste management and cleansing rituals before spiritual functions. For example, within Hindu society people “must defecate beyond the distance of an arrow shot from their home, and never in a temple enclosure, at the borders of a river, pond or spring, or in a public place. During the act, Muslims cannot face towards Mecca and Hindus must not face celestial bodies, a temple, priest or holy tree.” Jewish law outlines specific practices regarding hand washing as well as dealing with human waste. Consulting with religious authorities to learn about the religious attitudes and corresponding behaviours regarding water, sanitation and hygiene practices such as hand washing can go a long way in developing appropriate and utilized systems.
With globally about 64% of schools being faith-related, there are unique opportunities and benefits from linking spiritual learning with learning on water, sanitation, hygiene and the environment, and the improvement of water and sanitation facilities in schools.
The availability of good water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools – and education about these issues – is critical for facilitating children’s right to water, sanitation and hygiene as well as their right to education. Loss of school days due to diarrhoea, intestinal worms and other illnesses caused by poor water and hygiene greatly affects learning and development. Girls and female teachers also lose days due to the lack of facilities that take menstrual hygiene into consideration. Given that, as noted above, a majority of schools are faith-related it is vital that these faith communities provide facilities and effective water, sanitation and hygiene education in their schools.
What can religious communities do to promote water, sanitation and hygiene?