We Swiss are proud of our education system and our impeccable basic services. The health of our children is also important to us. So, the water bottle in a child’s school bag is a matter of course. ‘Drink regularly’, we remind our offspring. And ‘wash your hands after going to the toilet’. In our bathrooms and classrooms, fresh drinking water flows out of the tap, at all times and as much as each child wants. If the bladder is full, all primary school children can access clean, gender-separated WCs which they can use at any time. Afterwards, they can wash their hands with soap.
Most Cambodian children can’t even dream of such privileges. More than 30 years after the end of the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s education system is still suffering from the consequences. However, while school is still not compulsory today, almost all children attend classes at primary school level, even if irregularly. In rural areas, school attendance remains limited because children are often expected to help in the fields. Schools are often in a run-down condition, especially in rural areas. There are classrooms, but to relieve themselves, children often have to go behind, not inside, the dilapidated lavatory structure. There is usually no facility for washing their hands. And even where clean water might be available, the children would rather refrain from drinking it, so that they don’t get caught short with a full bladder, especially the girls.
Cambodia has set itself the goal of providing sanitation to all the 7,000-plus primary schools in the country by 2023. In the particularly disadvantaged Banteay Meanchey province, only just a quarter of all 410 primary schools meet the minimum standards. 58 schools have no toilet, 124 have no running water. Drinking water is almost nowhere available.
The lack of hygiene has grave consequences for many children, but also for the environment. Caritas Switzerland considers the situation to be unacceptable and is committed to working for an improvement in the hygienic conditions in the schools.
Blue Schools pilot project
Banteay Meanchey is greatly impacted by climate change. Droughts and floods alternate and severely affect the livelihoods of the population engaged in agriculture. Since 2012, Caritas Switzerland has supported the communities in Banteay Meanchey to deal with the consequences of climate change and natural disasters. Some years ago, the authorities approached Caritas with the request to also work with the schools. In 2018, it was decided to carry out a three-year pilot project in which eight primary schools with 3,150 children and 100 teachers are transformed into so-called ‘Blue Schools’. In Blue Schools, the children learn about the connections between climate, ecology and health. In the school garden, the pupils learn how food production is closely related to an efficient use of natural resources. Through play, they improve their knowledge about healthy nutrition, organic methods of cultivation and sustainable use of land and water. An important topic in Blue Schools is the avoidance of plastic and the systematic recycling of reusable materials.
First, the infrastructure is established in the form of child-friendly, gender-separated and easy-to-clean toilets, where possible with eco-soakaway beds. Also included are facilities for washing one’s hands with soap, fed by rainwater. Finally, filters are necessary for clean drinking water. At least as important as the construction measures are the behaviours that enable long-term use of the infrastructure, personal hygiene and clean school grounds. Caritas Switzerland has long expertise in the field of school hygiene and has developed its own training tool for this purpose: CHAST (Children Health and Sanitation Training). It includes a range of age-appropriate and playful modules through which the children discover and understand the connections between (un)hygienic practice and the consequences for health and the environment. The concept includes involving the teachers as well as the immediate environment (parents, snack sellers in the school grounds). The aim is to develop a comprehensive understanding of hygiene and ecological relationships among all those involved.
The pilot project is a great success. Particularly gratifying is the strong commitment of the roughly 100 teaching staff, most of whom have worked with great commitment to support their schools. Most of the toilets are shiny clean, the school gardens are well-kept, and the school grounds are clean. The teachers, parents and public authorities also recognise the role of the children as change agents both in their families but also as pioneers for the subsequent generations. The project is so successful that Caritas Switzerland wants to support 45 more schools in Cambodia on their way to becoming Blue Schools in this project. This will benefit 11,200 primary school children and school staff.