Studying in fresh air once again

Ending open defecation in Kiribati

UNICEF Pacific
27 June 2022

Imagine trying to focus on what your teacher is saying when you just can’t escape the smell of poo.

For children in Kiritimati island, part of the Line and Phoenix islands in the remote country of Kiribati, life at school and home is never far from the sea. The island they live on is the world’s largest coral atoll, covering 150 square miles in land mass never rising more than 3 or 4 metres above sea level, with a lagoon roughly the same size.

When your school is near the sea, you might expect a cool salt sea breeze to waft through the windows now and then. But instead of the fresh cool breezes, 9-year-old Kinaua remembers the acrid smell of poo pervading the room as she tried to focus on her studies.

“When I was at primary school, I remember seeing lots of boys and even sometimes girls going to the toilet on the beach,” she says. “Or sometimes they would use the nearby bushes to defecate.”

Open defecation refers to the practise of defecating in fields, forests, bushes, bodies of water, or other open spaces. Defecating in the open poses huge risks to the nearby population, not only by contamination, it also impacts on children’s nutrition, on community health and everyone’s dignity and safety.

But it’s not always as easy as it first might appear, to change the practice. When a community is accustomed to defecating in the open, it can be hard to understand why it isn’t a good idea. But that’s only half the battle anyway. What if the community lacks adequate toilets and sanitation infrastructure? 


UNICEF under the EU Kiribati Partnership is working with the Ministry of Line and Phoenix Islands to support ending open defecation on Kiritimati. The aim is to improve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene as well as strengthen community, household and institutional resilience for water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Kinaua’s first primary school didn’t have enough decent facilities, which was why her classmates were often found outside when they needed to go to the toilet. Her new school is better equipped, but recently, all schools and healthcare facilities in Kiritimati underwent an infrastructure needs assessment, to identify what designs and supplies would be needed to bring them up to an appropriate standard.

With 24 percent of the island’s population defecating in the open according to the 2015 census, it’s an important issue to get right. So along with addressing the infrastructure needs, the Government also encouraged all schools to raise awareness on the importance of proper hygiene and sanitation with their pupils, through assemblies and events, such as commemorating special days.

Kinaua, a straight-A student, lives with her two parents, her father a dedicated police officer and her mother a hard-working nurse. Not only is she a hard-working pupil always in the top ten of her class, she also has a passion for drama. So, when she heard that she would help commemorate World Toilet Day (WTD) by leading her school drama group in a play, she was very excited.

“World Toilet Day reminds us how important our toilets are, especially for us girls,” she says. “It’s so important to have a safe place to attend to the call of nature, take a bath and support our needs during menstruation.”

World Toilet Day was a moment of reflection, and one that made Kinaua appreciate her new school even more, as it was recently built with enough toilet facilities and handwashing stations to mean that neither her nor any of her friends, would ever need to head outside again.

Studying in fresh air once again
UNICEF Pacific

Holding her school’s appreciation award for the play Kinaua says “I now realise with the help of WTD messages that using a proper toilet and washing our hands with clean water and soap is a must. Not only that but open defecation is no longer practiced, and the surrounding air always smells fresh.”