Importance of Teachers in Girls' WASH Education: Success of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Programs in West Bengal, India (a short essay)
by Mark Lotto
Of the 14 schools visited in West Bengal India in November 2016, Tiorkhali Nagendra Balika Vidyalaya high school had one of the best performing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs not only because of its maintained infrastructure but because of the impact the teachers had on the girls’ education. In this all-girls school high school in Purba Medinipur district of West Bengal, 100 girls between 10-15 years old cram into the school’s sparsely furnished classrooms. In addition to the standard curriculum of math, science, history and English, the girls also learn about the importance of clean drinking water, adequate sanitation, and proper hygiene. The girls come from poor farming families with often illiterate parents, and don’t have access to WASH facilities at home. Therefore, the school’s WASH program is the only opportunity for the girls to use appropriate sanitation facilities and learn about adequate hygiene practices. To cover the expenses of the WASH program throughout the year, students in West Bengal are expected to pay a small annual school fee. However, at Tiorkhali Nagendra, families are unable to pay the less than $5 USD annual fee. For the teachers responsible for the girls’ education and wellness, they didn’t let this lack of funding get in the way of a new WASH construction project.
INSTALLATION OF THE WASH PROGRAM
In 2014, the school’s teachers and administration secured the installation of much needed WASH facilities. A sanitation block of seven latrines was constructed, along with a system for feminine sanitary napkin disposal. A five-tap water station was built to provide clean drinking water and a place for the girls to wash their hands. A large tank was placed on top of the school to store ground water extracted with a submersible pump, providing water on demand.
Government financial support was inconsistently distributed, with schools receiving funds some years but not others, forcing the school to rely on other sources of capital. The Denver based non-governmental organization (NGO) Water for People funded nearly half of the project, while the school managed to fund the rest. The school had many other needs, but the value WASH infrastructure provided was worth the capital investment. With the facilities in place, it was up to the teachers to educate the girls on its importance and proper use.
IMPORTANCE OF TEACHERS
INSTITUTING WATSAN COMMITTEE
The most effective WASH education appears to occur when teachers empower girls to manage and maintain the WASH program themselves. A water and sanitation (WATSAN) committee of 12 girls was voted on by the students, and approved by the teachers. The WATSAN committee was tasked with ensuring the sanitation block was cleaned and maintained, and for fielding questions and complaints from other students. At Tiorkhali Nagendra Balika Vidyalaya, the WATSAN committee held meetings every two weeks. These meetings were even attended by the school’s over-taxed headmaster, a testament to the value of the program placed by the administration.
PROVIDING DAILY EDUCATION
In schools in West Bengal, it was standard practice for students to pray every day at meals. The teachers of Tiorkhali Nagendra Balika Vidyalaya capitalized on this opportunity when all of the students were gathered to teach about water, sanitation, and hygiene. This daily education was directly related to higher performing WASH programs. Schools that did not incorporate daily WASH education often had struggle WASH programs.
Another indicator of success during the survey was whether the teachers financially contributed to the WASH program. Students were expected to pay an annual school surcharge, or a monthly WASH fee, but not all schools required or expected the teachers to do so. When students paid a fee to the WASH program, there was a greater sense of program ownership. At Tiorkhali Nagendra Balika Vidyalaya, teachers often paid much more than a simple WASH fee. If there was a difference in the schools operating expenses and revenue, the teacher’s paid the difference. This practice sounds very foreign, but appeared to be common because the government often only funded teacher salaries, not school maintenance. In fact, teachers from about half of the schools surveyed paid into the school’s WASH program. In another school, the teachers pooled their money to pay for the school’s electric bill. The following year, the government paid the electric bill, and even refunded the teachers financial contribution from the previous year. The government payment however does not appear to be a standard across the other schools.
DISPLAYING ENTHUSIASM AND MOTIVATION
During the November survey, it became clear that schools with enthusiastic and motivated teachers had top performing WASH programs. One measurement of teacher enthusiasm and motivation was the number of teachers that participated in the WASH survey. The survey meetings were scheduled with the school’s headmaster, but often times teachers came into the headmaster’s office to participate in the survey and voice their opinions. Programs with only one or two teachers present at the time of the survey appeared to have poorer performing WASH programs. In contrast, schools with three or more teachers present during the survey tended to be better performing programs. During the discussions about the specific survey questions, responses were longer, more detailed, and the teachers seemed more enthusiastic and motivated when the number of teachers present was higher. For future surveys of this type, the number of teachers present at the time of survey should be measured. It was also noted that when teachers responded to more of the survey questions compared to the headmaster, the WASH programs seemed to be more successful. Teacher and headmaster responses should be measured in the future as an additional indicator of teacher motivation.
METRICS OF SUCCESS
REDUCED EMBARRASSMENT AND HIGH SATISFACTION RATES
After surveying 14 schools, teachers and headmasters at 100% of the schools reported that students were no longer embarrassed to use the bathroom in West Bengal. At Tiorkhali Nagendra Balika Vidyalaya, I asked the three teachers I spoke with whether the students were satisfied with the program. The teachers immediately and enthusiastically replied that yes, the students were extremely satisfied with the program. To emphasize their point, they interrupted the class next-door and asked the room of 20 high school girls if they were satisfied with the program. In a unison response, they replied enthusiastically, “yes, very satisfied!”.
DROP IN ABSENTEEISM
Another metric of success for schools’ WASH programs was the drop in a school’s student absentee rate. Illness due to poor hygiene was common for students at Tiorkhali Nagendra Balika Vidyalaya, with around 10% of the girls not present at school before the WASH program was installed. Since the program was started, the absenteeism rate was around 1-2%. Across the 14 schools surveyed, administrators reported an average drop of 7% in absenteeism since their WASH programs started.
ELEMENTS OF OTHER SUCCESSFUL WASH PROGRAMS
Teachers from other schools have implemented innovate programs to inspire and empower their students. One school’s WATSAN committee went out into the community 2 to 3 times per year to put on theater performances to teach about the importance of water and sanitation. At another school the teachers put on a wellness camp to teach about the importance of WASH, and also about healthy eating and physical exercise. Another school had women empowerment phrases artistically painted in its central hallway. Progress in girls’ WASH education was being made in rural India not because of the additional facilities in place, but because of the vigilance and enthusiasm of each school’s teachers.