By Priyanka Khanna
Hazipur (Vaishali), 20 March 2008: As the world grapples with the challenges of unsafe water supplies contributing to 88 per cent of all diseases, student cabinets in this rural village of India’s eastern Indian state of Bihar have shown the way forward.
Children who are part of elected Bal Sansad or student cabinet managed to get authorities to not only commit that all schools have toilets but also to make the toilets accessible by children with special needs, demonstrating that young people’s voices coupled with administrative and political responsiveness can make a world of difference.
To mark the World Water Day, Vaishali district officials initiated construction of a toilet for children with special needs in a government-run school that had no toilet since last many years. The new toilet will have a ramp for wheelchair-bound children, lower handles and fittings, grab bars and elbow-operated taps for enabling access to children with special needs.
UNICEF, who is working in partnership with the government to accelerate the State’s progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, has provided the technical inputs and initial impetus for the model toilet.
Speaking at the inauguration, Executive Engineer K.N. Baitha said: “We were stimulated by the demands of physically-challenged members of the Bal Sansads and when UNICEF offered assistance we decided to be the first in the state to have toilets for children with special needs.”
Bal Sansads were first established with UNICEF’s support in Vaishali and Nalanda districts as a model and last year the state government decided to initiate the same in all the government-run schools in the state.
Not so long ago, children belonging to a student cabinet of a government-run school in Nalanda district had themselves arranged for repairing the door of their school toilet when their pleas fell on deaf ears.
The new toilet that is likely to be ready in next two months will also have an incinerator for disposing used sanitary napkins. It will be a major boon for school-going adolescent girls.
What made the event even more special was that it was held on World Water Day which the international community is utilizing to draw attention to the International Year of Sanitation 2008 that has called for a focus on addressing sanitation and hygiene problems.
For Rama Nishad, district head of the locally elected self-governing council, the provision of the incinerator was the most striking feature of the new toilet design as it would make disposal of used sanitary napkins easy and hassle-free. “Unfortunately, the social conditioning is such that girls are embarrassed about this perfectly natural part of life. They don’t know how to dispose off the napkins and end up missing school during those days. This incinerator is needed in toilets across the state,” she said.
It is hoped that the initiative would strengthen the ongoing process of making all schools in Bihar more child and gender-friendly.
Bijaya Rajbhandari, State Representative, UNICEF Office of Bihar, said: “Safe water goals cannot be achieved without improving sanitation facilities. Building of toilets for children with special needs will also help enhance safety, dignity and self-esteem. Across the country we find that girls are withdrawn from school when they reach puberty. Much needs to be done to address this,” he added.
Only 19 per cent households have toilets in rural Bihar. Though 90 per cent have access to water, quality is a major issue. Reportedly, 74 per cent schools have toilets out of which 30 per cent have exclusive toilets for girls and 80 per cent have access to drinking water.
The challenge of development in Bihar is enormous due to persistent poverty, complex social stratification, weak infrastructure, and high vulnerability to natural calamities. With a population of over 96.9 million people, growing at an annual rate of 2.8 per cent, it is among the low-performing states of India with around 42.3 per cent of the population living on less than one dollar a day. Further, with nine out of 10 persons in Bihar living in villages, poverty in Bihar is significantly a rural phenomenon.
The inauguration of a toilet for children with special needs on World Water Day indicates the winds of change are blowing. Children of Bihar seem to have caught on the message that better sanitation that consequently improves drinking water quality is key to reducing the disease burden and child mortality.