An interview with Rubina Islam of WASH-SDG programme, Development Organisation of the Rural Poor (DORP).
Rubina Islam has been working as an activist in development since 1980. She has had a career path with different international organisations such as Care International, Concern World Wide, and UNDP.
She has worked on establishing the rights and the empowerment of women and adolescent girls – ensuring their participation in decision-making at the family, society as well as national level in varied sectors.
Water Integrity Network (WIN) and the Development Organisation of the Rural Poor (DORP) are collaborating together under the project Integrity in school WASH: A reality check in Bangladesh. The aim is to understand how integrity issues affect WASH services in schools in Bangladesh by using the Annotated Water Integrity Scan (AWIS) tool. Based on the integrity assessments that have been done, WIN and DORP are advocating for change in policies and implementation practices in schools to improve WASH facilities.
Can you describe the average water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) situation of schools in Bangladesh?
Schools in Bangladesh have on average one toilet per 187 students according to the National Baseline Survey of 2014. There is no supply of water or soap in nearly two-thirds of the toilets. In addition, frequently toilet windows are tiny, with little light and ventilation, and it is anyone’s guess how bad the stink is.
The co-education (mixed boys and girls) schools here usually operate at more than full capacity. Sometimes a school may have up to 900 students but only four toilets. One of the toilets is used solely by the teachers and remains closed to students at all times. So, 900 students effectively use only three toilets.
To add to that, there are no separate toilets for boys and girls. When girl students are going through their periods, there is no way for them to change their sanitary napkins. Ninety-five per cent of schools in Bangladesh are not equipped for menstrual hygiene – which translates to the use and disposal of sanitary napkins, or cloth pads. The result is that during their periods, girl students do not attend schools.
Have you found a relationship between poor sanitation facilities in these schools and the overall health of students?
To be honest, if you would visit these toilets you would be shocked.
Most of the time, the toilets are unclean. There are no proper lighting facilities, no running water, and no soap. Most students suffer from urinary tract diseases or infections because they are unable to use the toilets given their unhygienic conditions or because there are so few and therefore overcrowded. When I spoke with the students, they told me that they are forced to go back and use the toilet at home.
Can you tell us about the work that WIN and DORP are doing in schools under the project integrity in school wash: a reality check in Bangladesh?
To understand how integrity issues affect WASH services in schools in Bangladesh, WIN’s tool called the Annotated Water Integrity Scan (AWIS) was used to obtain primary data.
During the 30 workshops performed, the project team collected information from 600 participants in 30 schools, with an equal representation of teachers, students, parents, school management committee members and social leaders. The project is being implemented in 30 schools in two hard-to-reach sub-districts (upazilas) in the south of the country: Bhola Sadar and Ramgati.
AWIS was used to obtain data from 600 participants from 30 schools on various integrity issues affecting WASH services in schools. Participants included teachers, students, parents, school management committee members, civil society representatives, journalists, small-medium entrepreneurs, village doctors, imams/priests, and local political leaders.
Participants were invited to score and collectively discuss the level of integrity in 5 key areas of WASH in schools (see figure below). Participants scored on transparency, accountability and participation (TAP) in key five areas and then collectively discussed the level of WASH in schools.
The data was further complemented with information from a desk review on the legal and institutional framework of the country, a number of consultation meetings, Focus Discussion Groups (FDGs) and visits to school sanitation facilities. In addition, a randomized control trial (RCT) was implemented in parallel to evaluate whether the implementation of AWIS can improve WASH provision in schools.
Participants related the term integrity with several concepts linked to TAP such as discussions, meetings and awareness raising. They referred in particular to the involvement of some key stakeholders like students, union parishad, upazila chairperson, SMCs, teachers and parents. Integrity was also associated with aspects such as toilet cleanliness, availability of soap and water, and good practices of washing hands and wearing of shoes during toilet use.
Overall, apart from a few exceptions, workshop participants harboured negative views of the situation, particularly regarding menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and inclusion. Indeed, most participants confessed that they have never thought of the impact of sanitation management on students’ health and school attendance rate.
Can you explain the management structure that is responsible for WASH in schools? Who currently holds the power to solve this issue?
The schools that participated in the AWIS project are public schools, and the School Management Committee (SMC) is the main decision maker. The headteacher is the secretary of the SMC. Members include local influential people, schoolteachers, and guardians, but no politicians are included.
In the context of WASH, it is our observation that the SMCs are not paying enough attention to the sanitation needs of the students. Separate toilets for the girls come nowhere in their planning or vision. What is surprising is that even female schoolteachers are insensitive to this.
When we had our workshops, girl students shared with us the obstacles they faced with regard to menstrual hygiene management on the school premises. When we raised this concern with the teachers, they refused to discuss it.
What was the experience working with WIN and how do you think that added new perspectives to your work in the WASH sector?
AWIS is one of the first water integrity tools developed by WIN and has been adapted and applied in numerous countries.
An AWIS workshop is a single, time-limited assessment intervention that can reveal new information by facilitating constructive dialogue among different stakeholders on issues related to transparency, accountability and participation (TAP).
This dialogue helps establish priority actions to enhance water integrity and governance. I do believe AWIS is a very useful tool that helped us identify the overall WASH status of schools with respect to transparency and accountability from the perspective of different stakeholders as well as students.
Local members, mostly women enthusiastically volunteered to be a part of the project. They underwent tool training on the AWIS tool and facilitated workshops including compiling the data in the 30 schools.
As a result of this project, there are initiatives whereby:
Students, teachers and the local administration are now jointly working to make a set of directives on School WASH circular available on school walls.
District officials have undertaken steps to make funds available for the schools to build separate toilets for the girls and allocated a budget to keep the toilets clean.
Transparent and participatory decision-making mechanisms have been established among school management committees, parents/guardians and students on WASH services in 30 Schools.
Interest is being generated in the media – school WASH experts, policymakers, government officials and civil society are being invited to discuss integrity in School WASH which has not generally been discussed in the media in the past. A radio programme is being broadcast, focused on highlighting WASH issues in schools across the country.
The AWIS workshop created a useful switch in thinking in the minds of SMCs, teachers, parents, local leaders and students. They were able to identify and put into context the real situation of school WASH.
Do you feel that WASH funds match the true needs of Bangladesh’s WASH conditions and provide adequate relief to the population?
In my opinion, the money provided is only partly useful. Those mainly who are responsible for improving WASH conditions are governments, smaller local governments, and institutions. These are the entities that dictate how the funds are ultimately spent.
Even if they allocate some funds to WASH development, they are not specific enough. When the Minister of the local government allocates some money for some WASH purpose, they are not using it specifically for water, sanitation or toilet issues. It is for this reason that lobbying and advocacy activities are more essential.
I do believe, Bangladesh needs a strong advocacy mechanism to hold the concerned authorities and decision-makers accountable for WASH budgets specifically.
On the larger level looking through the gender lens, what is the intersection of WASH and women in your region of Bangladesh?
The issue begins at the basic household level. The male members of the household have zero consideration of the needs of women and the risks women face as a consequence of the lack of sanitation facilities.
For example, sanitation facilities are installed further away from the household. Women are afraid and insecure about using toilets at night and there have been instances where women have been attacked. Within the school system, many of the girl students do not attend school during menstruation as there is no space to change their sanitary napkins or cloth pads.
In the areas of Netrokona and Barguna, it was found that 32% of girls did not use toilets at school during menstruation. Seventy-five per cent reported that they do not change their pads or cloth at school.
The operationalization of the school circular is therefore very important – one of the directives is related to MHM but this directive is not pursued and followed in most of the schools. The community, including parents, are not aware of MHM at the household level and has no budget for MHM. Religious taboos also play an inhibiting role.
However, the issue extends beyond toilets – women in our country have no participation in the development of public activities or in the activities of local government. Women may be members of local governments but they are not given any real responsibilities.
Men in power are set in their thinking that women have no value. In general, in Bangladesh, many women are left behind. Women are not considered important and men are always operating under the assumption that women are inherently lazy. The irony is – we have a female Prime Minister!
We believe that women have the capacity to do any type of work. However, it is still a male-dominated country. This can and must change, but we will need more time to establish this in Bangladesh.
All photos by Carmen Fernández Fernández and Development Organisation of the Rural Poor-DORP