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Press release

Lack of safe water and sanitation in schools jeopardizes quality education

Clean toilets, drinking water and hygiene lessons for all schoolchildren essential to protect investment in learning

OXFORD, 24 January 2005 – As the drive continues to bring safe water and sanitation to schoolchildren in the tsunami zone, UNICEF warned that over half of all schools worldwide lack these basic facilities, jeopardizing the health and education of millions of schoolchildren.  

On the opening day of the Roundtable on Water, Sanitation & Hygiene Education for Schools 24-26 January in Oxford, England, UNICEF and the International Water and Sanitation Centre said that children are being cheated out of a quality education by the dire state of water and sanitation facilities in many of schools.  This basic deprivation is affecting school attendance, hampering children’s capacity to learn and denying them a critical opportunity to build their knowledge of basic hygiene skills like hand washing.

“The tsunami has turned the spotlight on a global crisis affecting more than one billion people every day, particularly children.” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “Safe water and sanitation are essential to protect children’s health and their ability to learn at school.  In this sense, they are as vital as textbooks to a child’s education.”

The Oxford Roundtable is being hosted by UNICEF and the International Water and Sanitation Centre, with support from Oxfam, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and the Governments of the United Kingdom and Netherlands.  It brings governments and international agencies together to build an action plan to make all schools child-friendly places, where the right to health and education are protected. 

Ms. Bellamy said that commitment to providing these services for schoolchildren could power efforts to reach three of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): universal primary education, environmental sustainability and particularly the earliest MDG on gender parity in education.  The end-2005 deadline for this goal is approaching fast.  But the international community looks set to fall short of its promise without urgent action.

Learning can be tough for a child facing a daily reality of dirty drinking water and broken, squalid toilets. Across the world, a lack of access to safe water and sanitation has a disastrous impact on children.  Diarrhoea and strength-sapping intestinal worms thrive in unsanitary environments and cause over a billion episodes of illness every year.  1.6 million children die annually from these diseases every year and millions more are left malnourished, weak and unable to learn.  

Children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the most deprived.  Only 57 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa are drinking safe water and only 35 per cent of children in South Asia have access to even a basic toilet.   These regions also have the lowest school enrolment rates and the highest numbers of girls out of school.

The situation is particularly critical for girls, who make up most of the 115 million children currently out of school.  Many are denied their rightful place in the classroom by lack of access to separate and decent toilets at school, or else the daily chore of walking miles to collect water for the family.

Education for girls can be supported and fostered by something as basic as a girls-only toilet.  Parents are more likely to allow their daughters to attend school if they believe that girls’ safety and dignity will be protected.  And fewer girls will drop out once they reach adolescence.  One study in Bangladesh indicated that a separate toilet could increase the number of girls in school by as much as 15 per cent.

“Getting and keeping girls in school is a major step toward reducing poverty in the next generation and improving child survival rates,” said Carol Bellamy. “And making schools more girl-friendly means they automatically become better environments for boys too.”

But increasing schoolchildren’s access to water and sanitation means more than simply building a toilet or drilling a well. New facilities need to be paired with hygiene education programmes for children and teachers.  This is the best way to ensure that toilets and water supplies are used properly so children can reap the maximum health benefits.  

For many poor children, school is their only opportunity to discover the critical links between good hygiene and health.  Trained teachers can help children learn health-promoting skills such as hand-washing before eating or safe waste disposal.  And good hygiene education transforms children into health educators for their families, passing on vital information and skills which can reduce household vulnerability to deadly waterborne diseases.  Hand-washing alone can reduce deadly diarrhoeal diseases by at least 40 per cent.

Children who benefit from these programmes are more likely to teach their own children safe behaviour, creating a positive cycle of knowledge and good health. 

But bringing these opportunities to all children will take more than money.  Effective co-ordination between education, health, water and sanitation sectors is still at a low ebb. Without clear leadership, projects to bring water and sanitation to schools will remain small-scale and unfocused. 

Ms. Bellamy said that the world has no excuse for failing to bring these services to children.

“We will only reap the rewards of investment in education if we safeguard children’s health while they learn,” she said. “For the world’s poor children, every day in school is a precious opportunity. Let’s help them make the most of it.”

For further information, please contact:
Claire Hajaj, UNICEF New York/UK: +1 646 331 4547, chajaj@unicef.org

Kate Donovan, UNICEF New York: +1 917 378 2128, kdonovan@unicef.org

Tettje van Daalen, International Water & Sanitation Center, + 31 2192996, daalen@irc.nl

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