By Azera Rehman
VAISHALI, Bihar, 17 May - Vandana is painfully shy of strangers. Her hair matted and skirt flowing, it takes a lot of coaxing to earn the sparkle of her innocent smile. Then, when asked about what she likes best about her school, the nine-year-old says, “Water”.
Vandana is mentally challenged. She also has some difficulty in movement. Until a month back, she and other children of Vishnupura Rajkhand School, in the Vaishali district of the state of Bihar, had to go through an ordeal to use the toilet. They had to use the hand pump to fill a bucket, and then carry that heavy bucket of water all the way to the toilet to wash themselves. Now, Vandana’s school toilet has a water tap.
Similarly, right outside the toilet there is a mass wash basin with 12 taps, which has made the process of washing hands with soap before mid day meals, after using the toilet, et al, much more convenient since the children no longer have to stand in long queues to use the hand pump.
The significance of Vandana’s response, therefore, is great, because it means that water, as essential as it is, and for the purpose of proper maintenance of health and hygiene, is more easily available for children now—and especially so for children with special needs like her.
Moonmoon, a student of class 5 of the same school who has a speech impairment, believes that the wash basin for hand washing has made school life much more hassle free.
“There is not much crowding like before,” she says, haltingly, indicating at a group of students who are around the hand pump to wash their hands before the mid day meal is served. “I am still getting used to washing my hands using the tap (in the wash basin),” she adds with a shy smile while helping Mithilesh Kumar, who is partially blind, to wash his hands.
The construction of the child friendly water and sanitation (WASH) facilities in Vandana, Moonmoon and Mithilesh’s school is the result of a pilot project of the education department of the Bihar government, with support from UNICEF Bihar, as part of the School Sanitation and Hygiene Education (SSHE) programme. This initiative focusses on addressing the needs of differently abled children and is being implemented in 100 schools of the Vaishali district since February this year.
The Vaishali’s district programme officer of Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan, (Education for All), Bihar government’s flagship programme , Premchand, states that the changes—of a mass hand-washing facility or basin, inclusive toilets with retrofittings (hand rail), and a force and lift hand-pump for storage of water in an overhead tank and easy availability of running water in toilets and wash basin —aims at making the schools more child friendly, and help retention of students.
“If a school is not child-friendly, children will always try to run away. But with such changes, life is more convenient, and children are happy. Things like these—water taps in toilets, a mass hand wash basin—play an important role in keeping a child in school and therefore helps in better learning,” Premchand says.
“Children with disabilities, especially those who are physically challenged, are specially benefitting from the inclusive toilets which have handles to hold on to, adds UNICEF WASH officer Nanak Santdasani
According to Premchand, Vaishali district has 9,715 children with disabilities enrolled in all its schools, of which 5,215 have physical disabilities.
Mithilesh, for instance, is now able to walk carefully to the toilet and use it, holding on to the handle that is newly put up on the wall.
About the benefits of the hand-pump, Mahesh Kumar Singh, headmaster of the Sahdulpur Chandni School in the Hajipur block states, “In summer, the water level goes down and sometimes the hand pump is not able to pump up the water. But with this new hand-pump attachment – Force and Lift, which was installed a month back, children are able to use it (by the simple movement of pushing down the handle) to fill the overhead tank and then get water in the taps in the washbasin and toilets easily throughout the day”.
“The encouraging results of the pilot initiative in Vaishali will facilitate advocacy with State Government, particularly the Bihar Education Project Council, to provide Child-Friendly WASH facilities in all elementary schools of Bihar”, informs UNICEF Bihar Chief, Yameen Mazumder.
To further help the children, Premchand explains that in the district schools where the retrofittings and wash basins are yet to be constructed, there will be some some modifications. In these schools, we are planning to get the 12 taps installed in a gradient, so that children can use them with ease, according to their height,” Premchan says. “In the schools where the basin is already constructed, we will make a platform with a slight gradient so that children can stand at different height and use the taps with ease,” he concludes.