“Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”

On 8 March 2019: International Women’s Day falls on 8 March with this year’s theme “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change” which focuses on innovative ways in which individuals can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of access to public services, social protection systems and sustainable infrastructure. Transformations, integrated approaches and new solutions are necessary particularly for advancing gender equality and empowering women on the journey to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In other words, “business as usual” will not be sufficient and should put forward innovative approaches that removes structural barriers and ensures no woman and no girl is left behind.

Right to education

Education is a human right as reflected in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” SDG Goal 4 targets, “To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Education to be a meaningful right it must be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable – establishing policies is inadequate while important to have proper infrastructure and facilities with adequate materials for students while meeting both safety and sanitation standards.

We Sri Lankans as a nation can be proud of, on the literacy rate of the population, which is 92.5 percent, is one of the highest literate populations amongst developing nations. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world that provides universal free education from primary to tertiary stage established with the free education system launched in 1945 with the initiative of C. W. W. Kannangara. Theoretically, this showcases the equal opportunities given to both girls and boys for education. The Government, in the process of improving the quality standards of education systems mostly pay their attention towards infrastructure development and improving curriculums. Still as a woman, I have realized that there is one important but less attractive topic left behind - Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in Schools. In Sri Lanka in 2016, out of total number of 10,000 schools  more than 1,200 complained that they do not have drinking water facilities which obviously reflects the lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities in the school. A Country Snapshot on MHM in schools in South Asia done by WaterAid and UNICEF in Sri Lanka highlights the toilet to schoolgirl ration in Sri Lanka is 1:66 whereas the WHO standard is 1:25.     

WASH in schools undermines the educational opportunities of girls

“In our school, we have toilets with basic facilities but does not have regular water supply which results smelly and unclean toilets. Therefore, my friends and I avoid going to the toilet during school hours and we manage it by drinking less water. According to my Mother, drinking less water and accumulating urine for a longer period may lead to kidney related deceases in the future. The most unpleasant things happens when I get periods at school, which is another headache. I tend to look at the back of my uniform always to avoid feeling embarrassed in front of my friends because; I keep the same napkin for the whole day without changing”.

This was a voice of a girl, whom I met at an urban school. 

WASH in schools impacts the education and health outcomes of girls and boys. Lack of privacy, suitable infrastructure for cleaning and washing and good hygiene in school toilets contributes to school absenteeism, particularly when girls menstruate. Suppressed by the issue of not having access to water in the toilets, girls and women try to wear the napkins for the whole day and use same old rags or cloths, which lead to increased risk of infections. Not having single-sex toilets and clean toilets let the girls to not to change the napkins embarrassed them about periods and feelings of shame in front of their male friends. The millions of girls and women who failed to face these challenges and could not come out of taboos and myths miss school and work, raising the risk of them dropping out completely.

Moreover, according to the position paper on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene done by WaterAid Canada, inadequate WASH facilities in schools are a key contributor to childhood illnesses, namely diarrhea. Children lose 443 million school days each year as a result of illnesses due to contaminated water. In 2011, only 45 percent of schools in least developed and low-income countries had adequate sanitation facilities (Canada).

WASH as a pathway to gender equality

The School Health and Nutrition Branch of Ministry of Education clearly identified this gap and stepped in looking for possible solutions. They identified a panel of experts with collaboration of UNICEF to develop a Handbook for WASH in Schools. According to the Handbook, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in schools refers to a combination of technical (hardware) and human development (software) components that are necessary to produce a healthy school environment and to develop or support appropriate health and hygiene behaviours. The technical components include drinking water, hand washing, toilet facilities and waste management. The human development components are the activities that promote conditions within the school and the practices of children that help to prevent water and sanitation related diseases and worm infestation. (Handbook for WASH in schools )

In 2007, Ministry of Education with the fullest cooperation of Ministry of Health and other stakeholders launched a School Health Promotion programme (SHPP) with the Circular No 2007/21. The main objective of the programme is leading the school to work for the health promotion within school community that includes students, teachers and support staff and parents, through organizational capacity building. These Health Promotion Committees are formed at National, Provincial and Zonal levels by giving attention to school level Advisory Committees and Student’s Health Promotion Clubs. Approaches to meet the main objective are formulating health promotional school policies, improve health relate knowledge and skills among students, creating a favourable environment in the school for promoting health education and school community participation for health promotion. The circular provided specific standards for provision of toilets for girls, boys and teachers as well as the supply of water.

The Circular continues as, water can be supplied either through water supply schemes in Urban Councils or wells and it is necessary to have overhead tanks with an electrical water pump if required. Water should be distributed throughout the school including to the toilets.    

Ministry of Education, aiming to provide universal sanitation coverage by 2020 and to mainstream menstrual hygiene management (MHM) through WASH in Schools (WinS) policies has decided and taken steps to facilitate schools with sufficient, accessible, private, secure, clean and culturally appropriate toilets with sufficient access to water. As a result, they have designed twelve toilets types for schools including one with the facility of disposing sanitary napkins with the assistance of several stakeholders including UNICEF and started constructions with the government allocation and financial assistance of generous donors.

Toilets with the facility of disposal of sanitary napkins for girls (source: Handbook for WASH in Schools)

It is evident that poor sanitation infrastructure limited access to hygienic menstrual products, lack of education, persisting taboos and stigma leads to poor menstrual hygiene. This could undermines the educational opportunities, personal development, health and overall social status of girls in schools. In response, the Government of Sri Lanka started integrating good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) practices into national norms and standards related to WASH in schools (WinS).

On the journey to MHM in schools, the Ministry of Education in collaboration of UNICEF developed a Handbook on WASH in Schools with dedicated chapters on MHM. The ministry is in the process of revising the national-level guidelines and developing a MHM training toolkit for planned national level Training of Trainers programme. It is expected to see visible impact on health and hygiene of children through improvement in their health and hygiene practices, and those of their families and the communities. It also aims to improve the curriculum and teaching methods while promoting hygiene practices and community ownership of water and sanitation facilities in the schools.

 Rainwater harvesting to give access to water  

“It is advisable to establish rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems in all the schools regardless of having any other water supply”,

stressed Dr Tanuja Ariyananda, Chief Executive Officer, Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum (LRWHF).

This corresponds the issue raised by the Education Ministry, the demand for water in schools changes over time due to various reasons, therefore figure changes time to time. In a country like Sri Lanka getting rain from multiple origins with a mean annual rainfall varies from under 900 to over 5000mm, the simplest solution is to collect and store water through rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems. RWH is accumulation and storage of rainwater for reuse on-site, rather than allowing it to run off.

“RWH is an environmental friendly, simple method that we mostly recommend to address school WASH issues as the water is even safer than well water or any other sources for drinking if the system maintained properly. We, LRWH installed more than 170 RWH systems in Sri Lanka having a total volume of 3,395 m3, with tank size range from five to thirty m3.”

The forum also recommended repairing and rehabilitating the existing RWH systems after reviewing 200 RWH systems in five districts of  Anuradhapura, Moneragala, Kandy Vavuniya and Mannar in an assessment on Review of  Rain Water Harvesting In Schools and Rehabilitation of the Underutilized Systems.

Our approach

People feel empowered when they have treated equally, and have control over their needs as rights-holders. For an example, when women participate in decision-making on WASH and when they experience better and safer access to WASH, they get more respect from other members of the community which increases confidence, which contributes to changes in women and men’s attitudes towards women’s leadership. It is also believed that youth are far more receptive to innovations and they are at an age which can be influenced to cultivate the habits of good personal hygiene. The combination of facilities, correct behavioural practices and education are meant to have a positive impact on the health and hygiene conditions of the community as a whole.

Global Water Partnership being a global network with a diversity of national and local partners, GWP decided to take an integrated approach by targeting these key pointers and facilitating both vertical and horizontal cooperation. In 2016, a Strategic Framework for WASH Climate Resilient Development was developed by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in partnership with Global Water Partnership (GWP) for the practitioners in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector providing guidance on the main elements to be considered in the planning and execution of actions aimed at building climate resilient WASH services. Our Gender Strategy  bring gender into the mainstream of GWP's work, by providing an overarching framework to practice gender- and women-inclusive approaches.

 Sri Lanka Water Partnership (an affiliate of Global Water Partnership South Asia) has long invested in school sanitation advocacy programme in Central Province – promoting hygienic practices, provision of sanitary facilities, maintenance and regular cleansing systems were put in place.

“Our work in school sanitation is carried out with private sector partners such as National Development Bank (NDB) and Hatton National Bank (HNB) and the Provincial Department of Education. We have also pioneered MHM awareness programmes in girls’ schools with the support of the Provincial Department of Education, Central Province and Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Sri Lanka. Our latest achievements is  completing RWH systems for selected schools in Aranayake and in Hatton, preceded by  sanitation advocacy to  improve toilet maintenance in schools”

said Kusum Athukorala, Senior Advisor to SLWP, who is willingly contributing her time and energy at this journey to achieve WASH goals at school level. 

Echoing the International Women’s Day 2019 theme “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”, let us look upon on industry leaders, social entrepreneurs, gender equality activists and women innovators and ask them to examine the ways in which innovation can remove barriers and accelerate progress for gender equality, encourage investment in gender-responsive social systems, and build services and infrastructure that meet the needs of women and girls.


  • Handbook for WASH in schools . (n.d.). Colombo: UNICEF, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka.

Photo Credit

  • Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum
  • Kusum Athukorala