The pump has been filled, the floor has been swept, and our new bathroom facility at Knar school is finally complete! Our facilities now have three times as many toilets and a proper hand washing station, an improvement that helps us to better address the sanitary needs of our 360+ students and teachers. However, beyond this upgrade in facilities, these new bathrooms represent a major success in our efforts to educate the community at Knar about the importance of actually using them. So just how important is a having a toilet, and how does using it affect the community?
According to a 2010 National Sanitation and Hygiene Survey, nearly 70% of rural Cambodians practice “open defecation” as their main form of sanitation, and only 62% of Cambodians regularly wash their hands. Why? Because they simply don’t have another option. Fewer than 1 in 3 Cambodians have access to bathrooms and hand washing facilities, one of the lowest rates in Southeast Asia.
At schools, the availability of sanitary facilities paints a similar picture. The most recent report from the Ministry of Education finds that that only 50% of rural public schools are equipped with a water supply, and 36% have no toilet facility at all.
To put things in perspective, World Bank reports indicate that there are 1.55 mobile phone subscriptions per capita. This means that more Cambodians are using mobile phones everyday than are using a toilet or washing their hands regularly.
When we began our efforts at Knar School back in 2006, we too were quick to notice how unpopular the bathroom facility was. A few students were using the bathroom facilities, but the vast majority would wander out behind the school to relieve themselves in the bushes. So we had bathrooms, but having bathrooms is no good unless they’re being used.
As you can imagine, this lack of proper sanitation is closely related to the quality of water and health for those living in the countryside. Open defecation leads to high levels of E. Coli contamination in groundwater, and significantly increases the risk of Diarrhea, skin disease, respiratory illnesses, and other waterborne sanitary related diseases. UNICEF finds that high incidences of diarrheal diseases alone account for one fifth of the deaths of children age five and under in Cambodia. Yet, the same study also finds that the use of a toilet can decrease diarrheal related deaths by 30%, and hand washing by more than 40%.
We have water filtration systems at all of our projects to provide clean drinking water for our communities, but improving sanitation and wellness through the use of bathroom facilities helps us reach the root of the issue. In a few words, using bathroom facilities means clean environments for all.
It took us 8 years (years!) to get our students to regularly use the bathroom and wash their hands. For students who have spent their years using “nature’s bathroom”, the concept of using a bathroom felt very strange. Why should I use a toilet if I don’t have one at home? Why should I change my habits if what I’ve been doing has been working fine so far? Countless workshops and lessons to build an understanding of how these practices positively impact the community led the way in encouraging our students to change their habits, but it took time and practice for our students to learn HOW to use the toilets, HOW to properly wash their hands, and most importantly, to WANT to do so.
The new bathrooms at Knar School exemplify this change. We built more bathrooms because now that our bathrooms are finally being used, we needed more of them.