World Toilet Day and the challenges of access to toilets in Ghana schools

Today Friday November 10, 2010 is World Toilet Day, a day set aside by the global community to create the needed awareness on the challenges associated with the inadequate and in some cases total lack of access to toilets to majority of the people of the world.

It is estimated that 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to toilets. This figure is about one-third of the world’s population.

In Ghana, as it is in most African countries, the picture is even gloomier. In Ghana, only 13% of the populace has access to improved toilets. This does not include those who share their toilets with their friends and neighbours or use public toilets. In the toilet world ‘’Chop time no friend’’ is strictly applied to the letter and the best slogan is ‘one man one seat-one family one toilet’.

When it comes to the figures quoted above, one will always have to ask the multi-million cedi question “So where do the huge 87% of Ghanaians attend nature’s call?’’. Well the answer is not far fetched. They do it in the gutters, open spaces, behind  houses and properties, on refuse dumps, at our beautiful beaches, river bodies and so on.

The total effect of all these practices is reflected in our current state of sanitation and statistics from the Outpatient Departments (OPDs) of our country’s health facilities. As a nation we are literally eating our faeces to death. One of the frightening statistics in Ghana is the fact that 15,000 Ghanaian children die every year from diarrhoea disease.

What would have been the reaction of policy makers, civil society, the media and other well meaning Ghanaians assuming 15,000 children perish through road accidents every year? Well definitely heads would roll, jobs will be lost, committees would be set up, meetings would be held, resources would  be re-allocated, media campaigns would be stepped up.

As a country what have we done so far to solve this problem of inadequate/lack of toilets which has resulted in indiscriminate defaecation all around contributing to the death of our innocent under-five children.

Let us for now focus on the challenge to access to toilets in our schools. Sadly, it is estimated that only 40% of our schools have toilets.  Most schools in the rural parts of Ghana still resort to the use of pit latrines with palm branches providing partitions and privacy. It must be noted that due to lack of proper toilets in schools many of our young adolescent girls have dropped out of school and the social problems created afterwards can not be over emphasized.

The reasons why we need to provide adequate, improved and clean toilets for school children is to increase the health benefits of better toilets for pupils and students, retain pupils and students in school and encourage them to improve the condition of such toilets and thereby inculcate into them the attitude of continuous use of these facilities later in their adult life.

Currently our schools toilets have become havens of disease transmission, kingdoms of gangsters and bullies and places of horror and fear for innocent pupils and students and no go area identified with unbearable pungent smell. You need to be a very good acrobat to be able to use the facility. With faeces dotted around such toilets, you have to tip toe to find an island to attend to nature’s call. Some pupils recycle already used anal cleansing papers picked from waste baskets. Our school toilets have become safe hide-outs for wee smokers and illicit sex activities especially when schools are not in session. Used condoms are found scattered the next day. After all doors and locks to our school toilets do not work and can offer easy access to miscreants and unauthorized persons. There are cases where community members have broken into school toilets and vandalized and even stolen fixtures.

The maintenance and routine cleansing issues about our school toilets leave so much to be desired. The floors are always wet with urine, saliva and water. Scattered used materials like toilet papers, stones, sticks, corn cobs and other such materials are common spectacle. The argument as to who should routinely clean the school toilet is still going round and no concrete decision has been firmed up yet.

Whilst one school of thought sees it as dehumanizing to ask school children to clean their own toilets, the others think it an opportunity of ‘training’ the children on how to do it so that when they grow up, they will not depart from it.

School toilets get choked and blocked most part of the year. Whose responsibility it is to dislodge is still not clear.

It is also common to sight words or drawings scratched, written, painted, or sprayed on walls of our school toilets. Most of these graffiti are profane and insults and do not augur well for a growing child.

Teachers in some instances stop school children from using these toilets as a way of ‘protecting’ them from contracting diseases or as way of ‘instilling’ discipline. In such a case one is forced to ‘hang’ onto his or her nature’s call till school is over. Some school children avoid ‘dirty’ toilets and keep it till closing. You can imagine how uncomfortable such a situation would be vis-à-vis the child’s concentration in class. You cannot concentrate when nature calls.

Handwashing facilities are not part of most of our school toilet designs. After cleaning oneself it is believed that one’s fingers come into contact with faeces, in most cases these minute faeces are not seen to the naked eye. This is one of the root causes of death of greater number of children especially those under five years. It is therefore important to thoroughly wash hands with water and soap after visiting the toilet in particular and other such critical times. Ash and Lime have been found to be effective in absence of Soap. Again the problem of water availability to support handwashing is more pronounced in rural and peri-urban schools. There are no flowing taps and where they exist, they do not flow long enough to cater for the needs of school children. School children especially the girl child spends part of school period looking for water to fill the school water ‘container’. In some cases the water fetched is not good for hand washing in terms of both quality and quantity.  Government has spent huge sums of money in providing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities. In order to realize the aim of these efforts, there is the need to complement these facilities with effective behavior change communication (BCC) through the School Health Education Programme (SHEP) structures. However the School Health Coordinators lack the requisite resources to deliver satisfactory services to augment the provision of WASH facilities. Real behaviour change will happen if adequate time and resources are invested into BCC activities.

Looking at the picture painted above a real commitment is required to overcome this school toilet challenge. It must be appreciated that school toilet improvement is a shared responsibility-everyone has a role to play. The pupils or students, the teachers, school management, ministries, departments and agencies and indeed all and sundry have a role to play. Children are our future leaders and must be treated as such.

Policy and operational guidelines on promotion, provision, use, maintenance and management of school toilets should be developed and operationalised to guide operators in this area.

The SHEP should be strengthened at the national, regional and district levels to provide back up support for the use of school toilets.

The private sector, Multi-national companies, business people, old pupils/students and students, philanthropists, etc should invest in improved, user friendly, well secured, girl-friendly, adequate toilets for schools. These toilets can be branded in the providers’ logos and colours to provide publicity for such companies.

Pupils/students should be encouraged to use clean toilet paper and practice proper toilet ‘hygiene’ always. The use of handwashing facility should be part and parcel of basic hygiene practices.

Pupils/students should be involved in the management and in some case maintenance of school toilets. This will provide useful lessons for children later in life.

The challenge in our school toilets needs everyone’s contribution to overcome and all hands must be on deck especially when the Ghana is joining the global community in commemorating this year’s World Toilet Day.

By Kweku Quansah

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