Bare necessities

By Aroosa Masroor      Dawn, 04 Dec, 2009 

DADU: Mehak Essa is content that she can now concentrate on her studies. Until two months ago, she spent most of her time calculating the minutes that would be wasted in walking all the way to her relative’s house each time she wanted to use a toilet. But now that her school has a separate toilet for girls, she says her mind is ‘at peace.’

Mehak is a student of seventh grade at Mondar Government Boys High School in District Dadu that educates 400 students. The school was primarily built for boys, but in the absence of any girls’ school in the area, female students are enrolled in the school as well.

Although the strength of female students rose to 65 this year, sanitation facilities for them were absent. Indeed, the dearth of proper facilities for female students is proving to be a deterrent with regards to girls’ education. Absenteeism is high and many parents are reluctant to send their daughters to schools without facilities. This state of affairs compelled a local NGO, Indus Resource Center (IRC), to intervene and address the problem.

‘My house is at an hour’s distance from the school so I visit a relative’s village nearby whenever I want to use the toilet during school hours. But even the walk to his home takes 10 minutes and I can’t afford to miss my class lecture each time so I try and control till school ends in the afternoon or avoid drinking water,’ says Mehak.

Winters are particularly tough for Mehak and her friends, who chuckle each time they are asked about the sanitation facilities at their school.

Mehak’s case is not an isolated one. Most girls in the Dadu village and other parts of Sindh shy from talking about the subject which, they say, is ‘too personal to discuss.’ Most of them are also not trained to use a latrine and continue to practice open defecation in the fields.

‘Before we built a toilet in the school, we had to train the girls on how to use it since they did not have a similar facility at home. It took us several months to explain them the importance of safe sanitation,’ says Farzana Buriro, field officer IRC. Mondar High School is one of the 30 schools selected where the NGO intends to provide adequate sanitation facilities to students.

Most villagers, she says, are averse to the idea of building toilets at home so the NGO decided to target the community through schools. ‘Since students pay more attention to what is being taught in class, they tend to take the message back home to their family and ultimately the entire community,’ says Buriro. 

Sartaj Faateh, a student of sixth grade and resident of Sher Mohammad Solangi village, nods in agreement. ‘We don’t have a latrine at home, but since I started using the toilet at school I told my mother that I felt more comfortable and now my father is planning to build one at home.’

The headmaster, Baksh Solangi, adds that absenteeism in the school has been reduced to a great extent since the construction of a separate toilet for girls. He also believes more female students will enroll in the academic session next year.

Most parents are willing to educate their daughters (at least up to Matriculation) so they can apply for a job in the government, but refrain from sending their daughters to schools with inadequate toilets.

The situation in the urban areas is no better, where the 125-year-old Government Girls Primary School in Jagatabad, Dadu, awaits the attention of authorities.

The school comprises 200 students – most of them females – and is built upon an open drain. ‘We start our day with a dirty stench as we step into the school. The condition of the toilets is no better. Students are reluctant to use the ‘facility’ because the drains are clogged most of the time and there is standing water outside the latrines,’ says the school in-charge, Sajida.

It may be worth mentioning that a recent report revealed that over 60 government schools in Dadu – which is also the constituency of Sindh’s Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq – are being used as guest houses by local feudals. The report was made public by Sajan Mallah, EDO Education Dadu.

Teachers also complain that the development funds released for this district often lapse because the authorities concerned ‘do not have the time to visit their constituency and ensure access to basics like water and sanitation.’

But officials at IRC say they are somewhat hopeful after signing an MoU with the Education Department and forming a water and sanitation committee in schools.

Earlier this year, the Federal Minister for Environment had proposed an ambitious new target – to achieve total sanitation coverage in Pakistan by 2015. ‘We can only achieve this target if we work with the government and they support us too,’ says Saleem Lashari of IRC.

However, village activist Abbas Ali disagrees. ‘You can’t set targets for such things. Changing mindsets is the most difficult thing to do and the process can take years. We need to set targets that are more practical.’

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