Agents of change: Children bring improved sanitation from classrooms to communities

After a UNICEF initiative brought improved water and sanitation to Qholaqhoe High School, students are sharing these benefits with the wider community

By Jasmine Pittenger
Sixteen-year-old Selina Mokoena washes her hands
UNICEF Lesotho/2017/Pittenger
27 September 2017

From saving young lives to boosting girls’ attendance in schools – safe water and sanitation can have immense health and societal benefits. Learn how, after a UNICEF initiative brought improved water and sanitation to Qholaqhoe High School, students are sharing these benefits into the wider community.

QHOLAQHOE, Lesotho, 27 September 2017 – The road to Qholaqhoe High School, perched on an isolated mountaintop in northern Lesotho, is long and rocky. Here and there, a peach tree blossoms pink or white against the drought-parched yellow hills. Dotted between the aluminum-sided shacks and the round thatched-roof houses is the occasional backyard gravestone.

In Lesotho, a country with the world's second-highest HIV rate for adults aged 15-49, the virus affects every part of life and is necessarily woven into every part of UNICEF's action on behalf of children and families. But there is also a more silent killer at work.

As of 2015, nearly one in ten children in Lesotho dies before reaching her fifth birthday. Too many of these deaths are due to the effects of unclean water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene, which can increase a child’s vulnerability to disease and infection. Most of Lesotho’s ten districts report a high percentage of households using unprotected water sources, and about 20 per cent still need access to improved sanitation facilities.

UNICEF Lesotho/2017/Pittenger

Girls from Qholaqhoe High School stand beside the new water system, which delivers clean water from a mountain spring directly to the school grounds.

Reaching children in schools

Like many positive changes, one of the first places to start is in schools. UNICEF is working with the Government to launch water and sanitation initiatives at 20 schools across the country, with funding from DFID. The programme brings clean, safe water and toilets to school, and lifesaving hygiene skills to students.

One of the schools benefitting from the initiative is Qholaqhoe High. "Most of the children at this school don't have parents. Either they're orphans due to the AIDS epidemic, or their parents have gone to work in South Africa," says Deputy Principal Lebohang Khakhane, pointing to a mountain range where the neighbouring country is visible. Students here only come to school if they want to – it is their own decision. Some walk 5–10 kilometres to get here every day, and often they have no food to eat.

As a part of their studies at Qholaqhoe, students raise pigs and grow maize and vegetables. Previously, they had to walk as far as a kilometre down the mountain – and then back up – to carry water for the pigs and the fields. They had to do the same for clean water to wash their own hands, or to use the toilet.

But a new DFID/UNICEF-supported water tank with a 10,000-liter capacity is changing all that. So are the new toilets at the school, and the waterspouts that bring clean water directly to the school and the nearby community.

State of Emergency: Saving Lives and Building Resilience in Lesotho's El Niño-induced Drought, with DFID Support

In December 2015, the Government of Lesotho declared a state of emergency due to drought. Emergencies like this one put children and families at still greater risk of the "silent killers": diseases caused by unsafe water and poor hygiene. WASH interventions thus become still more vital, and can save still more lives.

In response to the El Niño-induced drought emergency, UNICEF took action to ensure safe access to potable water (30 litres per person per day), to meet the basic needs for rural households in the five most drought-affected districts in Lesotho (Berea, Mafeteng, Thaba Tseka, Quthing and Botha Bothe). Access to safe sanitation and hygiene facilities was also provided in schools and health clinics, and awareness was raised on safe hygiene practices. The project assisted nearly three times the number of beneficiaries it had originally aimed to reach: a total of 131,267 people (51% female) benefitted from improved access to WASH services in 33 communities, 25 primary schools and 4 health centres in the five districts. Thirty-seven WASH committee members (53% female) were also trained on the operation and maintenance of the water facilities, to ensure their continuous and sustained functionality.

With great risk comes great opportunity: these emergency WASH interventions left communities, children and families more resilient than before, and better able to face threats due to drought and/or climate change into the future.

Keeping girls in the classroom

Girls in particular are benefitting from Qholaqhoe High School’s new and improved water and sanitation resources.

"Before now, we girls didn't feel safe going to search for water. We might be bitten by a dog," says 16-year-old Selina Mokoena, a student at the school. Her eyes go wide as she continues: "Or we might be chased by a shepherd."

Around her, the other members of the school's Girls' Club go silent. Selina is speaking of a very real danger that girls and women face, when they must venture out alone in search of water: rape.

Lipuo Thabo with her grandmother
UNICEF Lesotho/2017/Ekanem
Lipuo Thabo with her grandmother, Mapoballo Thabo, at their home near Qholaqhoe High School. Lipuo has made her whole family healthier by teaching them the hygiene practices she learns at school.

Another girl looks down at the table as she adds: "Also, before we had water and toilets at the school, there was no way for girls to be alone. Especially when we are menstruating."

These are the kinds of WASH challenges that can keep girls out of school – a critical issue in Lesotho, where just 47 per cent of girls attend secondary school. At Qholaqhoe, 268 of the 400 students at the school are girls, and the surrounding community relies on them more and more for their leadership.

At the primary school level, UNICEF's interventions are also accompanied by WASH clubs, which promote learning about positive hygiene and sanitation. These clubs are proven to improve health and lower absenteeism among students.

Children as agents of change

The hygiene skills that students learn in school can turn them into vital ‘agents of change’, both now and into the future as they become parents themselves. And they are transforming whole communities as a result.

Fifteen-year-old Lipuo Thabo, another member of the Qholaqhoe Girls' Club, leads the way to a thatched-roof house in the valley below the school, where she lives with her grandmother. Along the path, she passes women collecting clean water from standpipes – also linked to the school's new water system – to carry to their homes nearby.

"Lipuo, she has taught us so many things already," says Lipuo's grandmother, 63-year-old Mapoballo Thabo. "Her nine-year-old sister Portia also lives with me, and her five-year-old nephew, Khotso. We are all much more healthy now, since Lipuo taught us what she has learned at school: to wash our hands after going to the latrine and before cooking and eating. Little Khotso is growing up strong. He no longer gets diarrhoea the way he used to."