New water, menstrual hygiene friendly infrastructure draws girls to school
Rural Zimbabwean school attracts previously disadvantaged female learners as World Bank funded WASH infrastructure turns cyclone-hit school into community model
Chikomba, Zimbabwe - There is something fresh about Faith Chimhandamba’s school, one of those battered by Cyclone Idai in 2019, but have now transformed into community models.
For the first time since enrolling at the rural Mashambamuto Primary School in 2016, it has become easier for the 11-year old to connect with fellow girls at school – after all they are now in the majority.
“There are just so many girls coming to this school now. It used to be boys all over but there are issues and experiences such as menstruation that we want to discuss alone and give each other advice as girls,” said Faith.
Newly constructed infrastructure such as menstrual friendly toilets, piped water and an interactive hygiene laboratory set up under the Zimbabwe Idai Recovery Project (ZIRP), through funding from the World Bank, is attracting girls to the school more than ever before, authorities said.
Before the ZIRP intervention, the number of girls was about half that of boys. The school now has an enrolment of about 190 girls out of the more than 300 learners, said school health coordinator, Owen Muroza. He noted that the dire situation before the ZIRP intervention used to turn off prospective girl learners.
“Parents didn’t send their girl children to this school because it was not friendly. But now because of the intervention more girls are coming to this school, some are even transferring their children from towns to our school,” said Muroza.
The brutal cyclone in 2019 caused extensive damage to infrastructure such as toilets, classrooms, water sources and houses in the three affected provinces of Manicaland, Masvingo and Mashonaland East.
As part of the Building Back Better initiative adopted under ZIRP in all the beneficiary communities, the intervention ensures that communities affected by Cyclone Idai not just recover from the disaster, but go on to live improved lives and also take responsibility for the sustainability of the infrastructure. ZIRP was managed by UNOPS through UNICEF and implemented with assistance of local authorities such as councils.
Treating themselves as more than just users, the beneficiaries are taking the lead in ensuring that the infrastructure remains intact. In Chikomba district, this responsibility is helping build solidarity in an area where water scarcity was a source of conflict.
Community members mobilised locally available materials such as bricks, crushed quarry stones and river sand and labour for pipeline trench excavation and backfilling during construction. Community Village Pump Mechanics (VPMs) and water operatives trained as part of the project now have the responsibility for some maintenance works.
“If there is a minor breakdown, they are able to deal with the problem. We trained more female village pump minders and female builders because women are the primary users of water in these communities,” said Bullen Chiwara, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Chikomba Rural District Council, which partnered UNICEF in implementing the project.
For major maintenance works, the council has ring-fenced 22 percent of its budget to fund sustainability of WASH infrastructure, he said. It’s partly funded by an annual levy of $1 per household that goes into the dedicated WASH account. Before, the council used about 15 percent of its budget for WASH.
In other provinces affected by Cyclone Idai and benefitting from the ZIRP intervention in Masvingo and Manicaland provinces, communities most vulnerable to repeated disasters such as floods have engaged insurance firms to ring fence the infrastructure. Beneficiaries across the country describe their participation in the construction, protection and sustainability of the infrastructure as a small price to pay compared to the life-saving benefits.
Using WASH as an example, Chiwara, the Chikomba CEO, said ZIRP provided an opportunity to bridge the gap between rural and urban communities in terms of quality of life.
“The moment we continue building the old pit toilets (then) we are not building back better. We made sure that everything is upgraded, that the toilets would be girl-child friendly in terms of menstrual hygiene and in terms of being disability friendly,” said Chiwara. He said part of the project involves constructing toilets with flushing systems, instead of squat hole ones.
At Mashambamuto Primary School in Mashonaland East province, the new WASH infrastructure is a far cry from what existed even before Cyclone Idai lashed the area.
The new toilets come with wooden cubicles filled with sanitary pads. They have taps, soap, hand washing basins, mirrors and individual compartments for privacy.
Menstrual Hygiene Management is a critical component of the ZIRP’s WASH interventions because it has been identified as a pressing need in many communities. Millions of Zimbabwean girls endure “period poverty”, making the provision of appropriate sanitary materials and hygiene education critical.
Disabled learners are also attending school with some comfort as they can now wheel up and down the toilet block, thanks to a paved ramp. A support structure inside means they don’t need help when using the toilets. A boy from a surrounding village who uses a wheelchair and had abandoned school has enrolled as a result of the new infrastructure, said school authorities.
On a recent day, members of the health club, which consists of 23 girls and 9 boys, took other learners through the new sanitation infrastructure. This included a robot – a hand washing reminder painted as giant footsteps in traffic light colour sequence on the ramp leading to the toilets entrance.
A colorful mural on the walls of a classroom directly facing the toilets acts as another reminder for learners to adhere to safe and sanitation practices. A hygiene laboratory equipped with a television, board games, quiz charts and model toilets allows the children to play and learn about hygiene using interactive methods, said health master Muroza.
Meanwhile, the solar system is doing more than just power the water scheme.
“The pass rate has improved because we now teach and learn using ICT tools, we are connected to the digital world. We can research on the internet and watch educational videos because we have solar powered electricity,” said Muroza. The Grade seven pass rate rose from 25 percent in 2021 to 33 percent in 2022.
“All this was enabled by ZIRP,” said Muroza, who, like his learners before the ZIRP intervention, wanted to quit the school. “When I joined this school I quickly went to the district to ask for a transfer. Teachers used to travel long distances for water or to the nearest urban centre for simple tasks such as photocopying, printing and typing,” he said. “But now I am here to stay.”
Banking on rejuvenated learners such as Faith to ace upcoming end of year public examinations, the school is eying to surpass the national average pass rate of 41 percent.
“School is now both safe, entertaining and I now have more friends, what can stop me?” quipped Faith, the school deputy head girl.