Sunday, August 19, 2007

None of My Business

Typically, I try always to be open-minded - to walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes, even if it is just to be a mile away and have his shoes when the deal goes sour. However, there are some things to which I cannot possibly relate, and even trying to gets me in trouble. One of those things is the female menstrual cycle.

So I find myself today getting caught up on some reading, in particular a NY Times article from December 23, 2005 entitled “Another School Barrier for African Girls: No Toilet.” I made it about three sentences into the article when this phrase caught my eye: “the realities of menstruation in a school with no latrine, no water, no hope of privacy other than the shadow of a bush, and no girlfriends with whom to commiserate.”

I quickly stopped my halfhearted attempt to relate to this, and am now working on the more simple reality that this is a bad thing and needs fixing.

So… Although the article’s protagonist (Fatimah Bamun, pictured above) is in Ethiopia, this is a reality which unfortunately is not isolated to Ethiopia or even Africa. Fifty percent of the world’s schools do not have access to safe water and single-gender sanitation facilities, and those parts of the world with such luxuries are in the fortunate position of not having to relate to this reality.

In Guinea, enrollment rates for girls from 1997 to 2002 jumped 17 percent after improvements in school sanitation, according to a recent Unicef report. The dropout rate among girls fell by an even bigger percentage.

This post is not about water – it can’t be. This post is about water as a direct conduit to additional educational opportunities for girls, and as a less direct but perhaps more compelling conduit to corresponding increases in economic development and decreases of fecundity rates.

Water and sanitation are statistically validated as significant contributors to education, whether it’s the Education Millennium Development Goal or any other success metric. A recent WaterAid report quantifies the impact of safe water and sanitation on not just the quantity of education, but also on the:

  • quality of education - children suffering from diarrhea or thirst (or holding back until nightfall to urinate) cannot concentrate on their lessons, and

  • teachers - particularly female teachers who often suffer the same consequences as do their pupils. It is very difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers where the schools don’t have water and sanitation.

I’d also suggest a quick glance at least at the summary of the Proceedings of the 2005 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education for Schools Roundtable Meeting which begins with this quote from former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan:

Water is intimately linked with education and gender equality. Girls who have to spend time gathering water for the family tend not to be in school. And where schools have sanitation, attendance is higher, especially for girls. Water is connected to health, since millions of children get sick and die every year from water-borne diseases and for lack of basic sanitation and hygiene.

I’m not asking readers to relate to this gruesome reality, or even to solve the world’s water problem. More pragmatically I am asking you to consider what it would take to catalyze a situation whereby each of the world’s schools achieves safe, affordable and sustainable access to safe drinking water and single sex sanitation facilities? How many schools are there, how many suffer from these shortages, and what would it take for every government in the developing world to meet its responsibility and fill that gap? Last and least, what could the international donor community do to jumpstart this sort of commitment to life and livelihood?

For example, there are 54,000 schools in South Africa. If 50% of those do not yet have water and sanitation that defines our universe as 27,000 schools. At a conservative (on the high side) $20,000 a pop for water, sanitation and hygiene promotion, that’s $540m. Couldn’t the international donor community come up with $54m to goose the GoSA to make that commitment? Then wouldn’t the governments of Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia be embarrassed…

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