Good sanitation in schools helps to improve education outcomes

Dilapidated latrines at a school in Lurambi constituency. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

When parents are scouting options on which school is right for their children, the state of the school toilets as well as other hygiene facilities is just as important as the academic performance of the institution. This is because children's safety from all harm, including that caused by poor hygiene, is a parent's primary responsibility.

Lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities, and their poor management puts children at risk and decrease their opportunities to be safe, healthy, and thrive. In Kenya, according to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), only half the schools have basic sanitation facilities.

The situation is worse in rural areas with statistics indicating that about 84 per cent of schools do not have hygiene facilities. While many counties have advanced Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) access, many more still struggle to translate the policies to action and progress. This constrains Kenya's overall ability to meet the Sustainable Development Goals in relation to health, education, WASH, and gender equality.

Like most nations in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya's largest share of investment in education is normally directed towards building classrooms and hiring staff while construction and maintenance of hygiene facilities including safe and improved toilets, is not accorded equal weight given the limitation of resources.

Yet, dirty, smelly, and unpleasant latrines in a school, buzzing with houseflies and other insects, contribute to an environment that is unconducive for learning. Such an environment is a breeding ground for diarrhoeal and other communicable diseases that contribute highly to children missing out on school.

Without a doubt, proper hygiene and sanitation facilities and safe drinking water have been proven to provide a critical carriage in the delivery of better education outcomes. In turn, proper education opens opportunities to help lift households out of poverty, thus contributing to inclusive, sustainable development. Constructing improved latrines has seen an increase in student enrolment and class attendances in some regions.

Over the years, there has been progressive improvement in providing sanitation facilities to schools by private sector companies through corporate social investments as well as initiatives by national and county governments. However, a lot more investment is still needed to address the challenges that contribute to the high prevalence of cholera and other sanitation and hygiene-related communicable diseases - mostly affecting Africa.

Investing in toilets and other sanitation facilities benefits the learners by keeping them in the classroom, healthy, and enjoying a pleasant experience as they get an education. Their households also cut on the huge cost of treating communicable diseases, considering that it is a leading cause of disease and death among children.

In addition, considering the strategic role that schools play in society as venues for public events and as polling stations during voting seasons, among other social uses, investing in their sanitation facilities delivers exponential benefits not only to the school but to the communities as well. Furthermore, schools often serve as a model for communities, and good hygiene and sanitation facilities can help inspire surrounding households to invest in a safe, reliable toilet and to consistently use it.

The learners also serve as ambassadors for the promotion of proper sanitation and hygiene facilities.

The 2019 Kenya National Population and Housing Census estimates that children under the age of 14 make up 39 per cent of the country's population, which makes them effective agents of change in communities.

This is critical in the continent, where the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that only 16 out of the 54 countries have less than 25 per cent sanitation coverage. In Kenya, UNICEF estimates that only 29 per cent of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities.

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Initiatives such as those driven by SATO, a social enterprise tackling the global sanitation and hygiene challenges through innovative sanitation and hygiene solutions, are slowly sealing the existing gaps. Through its Schools Toilet Enhancement Programme (STEP), SATO has been upgrading schools toilets in underserved areas in Kenya, most of which are in rural areas and informal settlements in urban areas.

From trials over the years, the upgraded toilets with SATO innovations have been shown to require 80 per cent less water to flush (less than 500ml or two cups of water), catering to the scarcity of water that afflicts parts of the country. SATO toilets are fitted with the innovative self-closing trap door that minimises the foul smell from the pits and the unsightly appearance of human waste while keeping flies and insects away. More importantly, it makes the latrines safer for young children compared to open-pit latrines. Such initiatives are key in ensuring that every household uses improved and safe toilets.

Despite the progress to date, there is still a great need to accelerate and scale-up efforts in addressing improved access to school sanitation and hygiene nationally and across the continent. This calls for the collaborative effort through partnerships with the Ministry of Health, like-minded corporates including not-for-profit organisations as well as individual and groups like school alumni to scale-up interventions like STEP that directly addresses this challenge. By working together and pooling resources, it is possible to improve more schools' sanitation facilities.

In this way, a conducive learning environment is created for children to stay in class and benefit from opportunities that this creates, boosting completion rates. This is the kind of change that society needs to avert long-term healthcare risks and drive sustainable development.