Until recently, the UN slogan "2008 the Year of Sanitation" did not hold any significance for the poor men and women in the remote rural areas of Sri Lanka. For them procuring clean drinking water was the only priority.
Meanwhile, their means of defecation and sanitation continued to be primitive, unhygienic and the cause of many illnesses, especially among children. In fact, one fifth of Sri Lanka's twenty million people do not have access to hygienic means of human waste disposal. As a result, diarrhoea and ailments related to worm infestation are common in the under developed, unserved areas. (Source: Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka)
But it was at the launch of a water supply scheme in Bandaragama village in Kalutara, a metropolis 45 kilometres south of capital Colombo, that unexpectedly, the issue of sanitation in the rural areas gained centre-stage.
And the woman who started it all was D.M. Renuka, principal of the Eladuwa Co-educational School. While interacting with officials from the Water Supply and Sanitation Decade Service, or simply, Decade Service, an NGO consortium, and Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) - the agencies responsible for the launch of the water scheme in the area - Renuka suddenly pointed towards her swollen feet. She informed the officials that her condition was the result of not being able to relieve herself during the six hours she taught at school, as there were no toilets in their school.
"Sadly, the students, including teenage girls, have to go to the nearby bushes to relieve themselves. But the teachers can't even do that. As a result of the urine retention, most of us suffer from this problem," she said. Water provision is fine, she added, but what about building toilets at schools?
Moved by her plight, the Decade Service decided to tackle the problem by launching a project to build toilets for 28 schools in Bandaragama, with financial assistance from NCA. Work on The Decade Service Schools' Toilet Project formally began on July 2006. First, those institutions that had no toilets were targeted. Later, those where the existing toilets were in a deplorable state. Where the need was most urgent, 41 toilets were built within three months of the commencement of the project.
"Sanitation in schools was not just limited to constructing toilets. There was an even greater need: to train the children to use them hygienically. A series of orientation sessions to demonstrate the importance of keeping toilets clean along with special hygiene education classes had to be conducted before the actual construction. And we had the full co-operation of the health authorities and regional government representatives in our endeavour," says Shirley Rodrigo, Executive Director, Decade Service.
The whole community participated in the construction, recalled S.M. Sumanatilaka, who managed the project. "Parents of students, the parent teacher associations (PTAs) and even the rest of the community was involved, supplying materials, advice, support and even unskilled labour," she explains.
The project was completed in December that year. It cost US $80,000 (Sri Lankan rupees 8 million), which included costs of construction, technical assistance, and staff. And around 300 school children, boys and girls, benefited from it.
As an innovative way of accessing the success, the Decade Service conducted a special painting competition. Children from schools that are enjoying the new toilet facilities asked to present their impressions of the toilets and how they had affected their lives. The 300 whimsical and funny, yet perceptive, paintings presented rare insights into the significance of a facility most city dwellers take for granted.
P.R. Wickramsinghe, principal of the Payagala North Boys' School, revealed that ever since the addition of the toilets at her school, students had become more disciplined, as they no longer had to leave the premises to relieve themselves. "There is no running to the woods every time they feel the urge, or on false pretences and staff members are happy about this," she commented.
Renuka added, "I am happiest about the change in the situation of girls in the upper forms. The lack of toilets affected them badly. Even if they did not drop out from school, they would miss classes on the days when they had their periods."
It is well known that the lack of toilets in general makes women and girls vulnerable to violence when they have to defecate in secluded areas. Proper sanitation enhances their dignity and safety. And decent toilet facilities also enable girls reaching puberty to remain within the educational system.
Sandini Samara, 16, an A-level student of Palathota Wimalasara Vidyalaya, is thrilled that her school has toilets because now her parents will let her stay in school till she sits for her final exams next year.
"I like having toilets in the school premises, as I don't have to waste time away from my classes. They are nice, with painted walls and even a place for the soap," said a happy Sanidu Ishan, 16, a male student of Bolossagama Maha Vidyalaya, a few kilometres from Bandaragama.
"Clean, safe and dignified toilet and hand washing facilities help ensure that girls get an education they need and deserve. When girls get an education the whole community benefits. The International Year of Sanitation highlighted the need for investments in proper sanitation facilities around the world," observes Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF's Executive Director.
Today, the Decade Service Schools' Toilet Project has become a benchmark for similar schemes in the rural areas of the island nation. Seeing the doability and success of the project, a new community-based programme for Beruwela district has been deviced this year. The project, which has already been approved and is in the process of being implemented, will be looking to provide sanitation facilities in 23 villages of the district, and will cover the schools in the area as well.