MAULVIBAZAR, Bangladesh – Imagine a school with just two toilets for 1,400 students, who wait in long queues just to use them.
Once the children enter, they squat over latrines swarming with flies and riddled with mosquito eggs. The stench permeates an area with a radius of 30 metres.
Imagine you are an adolescent girl who wakes up one morning to discover that she has had her first period – and then has to navigate this restroom. You might find yourself missing a lot of lessons.
|© UNICEF Bangladesh/BANA2013-6020/Khokan|
|Students leave their school for home. In addition to new washrooms, programming has been implemented to help young girls understand the changes their bodies undergo during puberty.|
Tackling poor school attendance in Tangri Bazar
Tangri Bazar is a rural village in northern Bangladesh. At Shahid Shudorshon high school, for Grades 6 through 10, there was an alarming decline in school attendance among girls, and an eventual dropout of 48 per cent of the school’s female population, over a seven-year period. By 2011, half the school’s students had dropped out.
Today, however, things have changed. The school sees robust attendance, and 66 per cent of the student body are girls.
In part, the restroom situation had created an unfriendly environment for these young girls as they grew older and had different needs. And menstruation-related sanitation and hygiene information was not taught in the home, or addressed by the school. According to teacher Deepti Rani Devi, “Students would begin to shy away from classes for up to a week when they got their period, because they just could not bear to have to stand in hour-long lines in unhygienic conditions.”
In order to address poor sanitation and hygiene, as well as the poor attendance and high rate of dropping out among girls, the school’s governing body, alongside local government officials, partnered with UNICEF on a package of services focused on engaging with school authorities about proper methods of sanitation and hand-washing. They raised funds to build 18 toilets in the school compound, as well as hand-washing facilities.
Support for young girls, through women
“I went up to Krishna didi and began crying because I thought I was dying,” says Sharmin, 13, recalling when she got her first period at Shahid Shudorshon school. “I planned to stop coming to school, but learning about how normal the phenomenon is was helpful for me.”
Krishna didi is Krishna Malakar, a volunteer from the community with whom Shahid Shudorshon engages to provide a continuum of services to young girls, including counseling. In the meantime, Ms. Devi addresses matters of hygiene and sanitation in the classroom.
Ms. Malakar opens her medicine box to display how she ensures that children are well taken care of. She has bandages, light painkillers, antiseptic cream and – since she underwent training as part of the programme – sanitary napkins.
|© UNICEF Bangladesh/BANA2013-6091/Khokan|
|Girl students use the new toilet facilities at Shahid Shudorshon. One student says, “Before the toilet facilities were built, I wanted to drop out of school…[T]oday, I want to become a doctor, and I want to bring these messages back to our community.”|
“Bodily cleansing is important,” says Ms. Malakar. “Additionally, sometimes girls are embarrassed to talk about these matters with their teachers, so it’s helpful for them to have me.”
Ms. Devi adds, “From when we are young, we are told to avoid discussing menstruation, and instinctively, we stop doing so. But, it is important that children know what they are about to face when they are growing up.”
Sharmin agrees. “The idea of receiving education or knowing how important it is for girls to remain clean and hygienic during their periods is something many do not even know about, and it is important that we address this,” she says.
Today, students like Sharmin can attend school, Ms. Devi says, because “[W]hilst addressing the issue of poor hygiene through providing better toilets, we are also providing the accompanying education to empower our students to take control of their future.”
Educating educators, educating the community
Headmaster Mohammed Wahidur Rahman, himself an alumnus, says the school continues to take into account issues of students and teachers, and students are now taught best hygiene and sanitation practices. And, since May 2011, Mr. Rahman and five other key staff, along with Ms. Malakar, have been undergoing training, themselves.
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Officer at UNICEF Kamrul Alam has been working in the area for over a year. He says, “There is a lot of leakage in knowledge and information amongst educators, themselves, and, without addressing this core shortcoming, any efforts to address sanitation holistically becomes a futile effort.”
Mohammed Ziaul Islam and other community health practitioners have been conducting training, disseminating materials and books on child hygiene and working with school officials to address issues of sanitation, as well as more sensitive subjects, such as menstruation.
“Even three years ago, at the beginning of the project, we would walk around the streets of Rajnagor and see open defecation,” he says. “And at least 15 to 20 people died of diarrhoea each year in our upazila [sub-district] because the concept of hand-washing was so foreign – let alone looking at menstruation as a cause of female dropouts.
“Today,” he adds, “only one mortality has occurred since we have begun to educate students.”
Students at Shahid Shudorshon are encouraged to form groups that bring messages of hand-washing, sanitation and puberty back to their community. As a matter of fact, when messages passed from student to parent in Rajnagor, the community banded together to combat poor hygiene. Community leaders raised funds to build seven hand-washing facilities at the school over a two-year period.
Government officials, in cooperation with schools, have been working on improving toilet facilities in three upazilas around the Maulvibazar district of Rajnagor.
As one student leader, Sabina Yasmin, says, “Before the toilet facilities were built, I wanted to drop out of school, as well. But, today, I want to become a doctor, and I want to bring these messages back to our community. A village is, after all, the heart of what our country is.”
A version of this article appeared on the UNICEF global website as the cover story on October 9, 2013, as part of the celebrations surrounding innovations in education around the International Day of the Girl Child. Smart and creative use of technology, policies, partnerships and, most of all, the engagement of young people, themselves, are important for overcoming barriers to girls’ learning and achievement.