Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lack of Running Water Puts Girls' Education at Risk

By Pilirani Semu-Banda

Rita Kalikokha of Dowa, a rural district in central Malawi, thinks about abandoning school every time she menstruates.

The hard-working, resolute 13-year-old attends a primary school that has no running water. All 350 pupils at Rita’s school have only two pit-latrines to share, and there is no tap where they can wash their hands after using the toilet.

Rita says she and other adolescent girls find these poor sanitation conditions even more awkward when it is time for their monthly periods: "It’s so difficult to concentrate in class when you know there is no water to clean up with at break time. I usually prefer staying home every time my menses come."

She says many girls in her school drop out as soon they reach adolescence as they cannot bear the inconvenience and embarrassment of having to do without water. Government statistics in Malawi show that that 10.5 percent of girls drop out of school each year as compared to 8.4 percent of boys. In addition to this, around 22 percent of primary school age girls do not attend school at all, while 60 percent of those enrolled do not attend regularly.

However, Rita’s problems concerning water are not confined to the school environment. Her village has no access to safe water. As the only girl in a family of five children, she is bound by tradition to fetch water to satisfy the needs of all four of her brothers and both her parents.

"There is very little time for me to do my homework as most of my days are taken up by my trips to fetch water."

She walks a distance of four kilometers to and from the nearest well. Her family uses this water for cooking, washing household utensils and drinking. Rita also has to ensure that there is enough water for herself, her father and mother to bathe. Her four brothers usually use a nearby stream to bathe – the same stream used by villagers as a toilet.

Child mortality is particularly high in the Dowa area, where almost every fifth child does not reach the age of five, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

But the problems with water provision and sanitation are not confined to rural areas in Malawi. Slums in towns and cities face similar difficulties as residents have to wait in long queues to buy water from kiosks or from boreholes.

In Ntopwa, a squatter area in Malawi’s commercial capital of Blantyre where most people eke out a living on less than a dollar per day, women resort to scooping out water from ditches of stagnant rain water. The troughs are their only water source, as they cannot afford to buy water from kiosks or boreholes. Waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea, dysentery and cholera are therefore very common in this area.

Many girls in Blantyre have similar experiences to Rita and other rural girls because the Ministry of Education frequently fails to pay water bills for local primary schools.

In the first six months of the year, more than 124,000 pupils had to use bushes around their schools to relieve themselves because Blantyre’s Water Board disconnected the water supply at 22 schools due to the government’s failure to pay bills.

Permanent Education Secretary Anthony Livuza had to plead with the Water Board to reconnect the water supply to avert an outbreak of diseases in the schools. The water supply company eventually reconnected the water, but asked the ministry to speed up paying for the service.

The United Nations Development Programme’s 2006 Human Development Report indicates that up to 33 percent of Malawi’s 12 million inhabitants have no access to safe water, while only 27 percent of the people have access to improved sanitation.

The country’s Minister of Water Development, Sidik Mia, says that having so many people without access to proper water and sanitation services jeopardises the socio-economic development of Malawi: "The effects of this go on to spread in the health, education and agriculture sectors."

He says government’s new national sanitation policy will give priority to the requirements of schools and will serve the public better with an integrated water resources management policy.

Meanwhile UNICEF is assisting in Rita’s Dowa region, where wells are being drilled for schools which currently have no water supply. The U.N. agency is in the process of installing hygienic latrines and washbasins in schools. It is also helping households in 30 communities to install hand washing facilities outside their pit latrines.

WaterAid, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps the world’s poorest people gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education, is helping Malawians to influence government and other NGOs to allocate more resources to water, sanitation and hygiene.

A policy and advocacy manager for WaterAid in Malawi, Amos Chigwenembe, says the organisation aims to help 136,000 people have access to safe water and another 131,000 to gain access to sanitation every year by 2010.

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