Recently I went on a safari trip to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, located on the border of Eastern Province near Malawi. As I drove down through Mambwe school district bordering the park, I couldn't stop noticing that schools along the way had freshly painted latrines as well as new boreholes for water. As I work in education projects, I had to stop in one of the schools to meet the principal. I wanted to find out how the school was performing and how access to safe and clean water and sanitation facilities was helping students. The school principal was happy to oblige and explained to me the changes to school life after the upgrade of their latrines and water.
The first impact was an increase in the school children's attendance, especially young adolescent girls. Retention had also increased in general for both genders. This observation was palpable during recess time when hundreds of students flooded the main open area in the school. Further conversation with teachers underscored the logic through which parents would decide to send their children to a well-equipped school, including clean latrines and a source of water. In the case of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Mambwe primary school is evidence of the latest paradigm: Improving student achievement in schools and respective literacy tests depends on having a "safe environment" in the school, including water and sanitation.
As we look beyond 2015, this anecdotal evidence demonstrates the need to look at the MDGs not in silos but in an integrated way, including health issues related to access to sanitation and clean water. For Zambia, the availability of sanitation facilities, especially separate and clean latrines for girls, has been shown to have a correlation with higher retention and increased contact time in school. Increased contact time in the classroom is a strong predictor for improved learning, giving teachers more opportunities to teach and avoid skipping class to go get water or go to the bathroom.
The evidence is clear to see in Eastern Province but so far has been harder to quantify beyond attendance and retention. However, improved attendance and retention, especially for girls, is an essential step to better learning. A girl absent from school is a future family at risk of remaining illiterate and poor. Moving ahead, education leaders should think more broadly about upgrading schools with teaching and learning materials. Mambwe district has evidence of three direct benefits of improved water and sanitation interventions: increase of enrollment figures, especially of girls, of five to ten percent where water and sanitation facilities are present; increase in actual contact time; and with improved attendance comes improved equity with gender parity, especially in upper primary school when girls drop out due to health and family needs.
Schools can carry on the labor of educating, but without the auxiliary services such as clean latrines, the challenges of poor attendance will not be fully addressed. The bottom line for rural schools such as those in Mambwe is the need to expand sanitation through more latrines and hand-washing as well as access to clean water through local boreholes for water.
This blog post is part of the "WASH and the MDGs: The Ripple Effect" blog series, in partnership with WASH Advocates, addressing the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to global development. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. To learn more about WASH, visit the WASH Advocates website, and for more information about the Millennium Development Goals, click here.