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By Monica Awad
HEBRON, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 11 April 2011 – For the first time ever, students at the Al Shioukh elementary school for girls in the West Bank city of Hebron have access to their own sanitation facilities.
The 450 students who attend Al Shioukh had long suffered from a lack of proper sanitation. Until December 2010, the young girls there had to use the facilities at the Dalal Al Mughrabi secondary school, a nearby girls’ school with 600 students.
“I used to go to Dalal Al Mughrabi school to use their toilets’, says Al Shioukh student Ansam, 9. Most of the time, I had to wait for more than 10 minutes to use the bathroom, because it was always overcrowded.”
Ansam adds: “Now I can use the toilet whenever I need to. We have our own toilets in our school.”
Support from AusAID
Poor water, sanitation and hygiene conditions have serious repercussions for Palestinian children, sickening hundreds every day and denying others – particularly girls – the right to quality education.
Last year at Al Shioukh, with support from the Australian Government’s overseas aid programme, AusAID, UNICEF built a new block of sanitation facilities with nine toilets, including one for children with special needs.
And the new facilities have encouraged students to attend school more regularly. In March 2011, only 3 per cent of the students missed out on at least one school day – down from 10 per cent in March 2010.
‘Healthy behaviours’ encouraged
“AusAID recognizes that health and education are two vital areas for development in the region,” notes AusAID First Assistant Director General Catherine Walker. “Improving water and sanitation facilities in schools not only has a direct impact on better health for children, but it also improves school attendance, especially for girls.”
In 2010, with support from AusAID, UNICEF built water and sanitation facilities for 59 schools in the West Bank and Gaza, reaching 40,000 students. This year, 44,000 students attending 55 schools will benefit from similar initiatives.
“In partnership with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, and with funding from AusAID, UNICEF is improving water supplies and sanitation facilities in schools and communities, and is promoting hygiene education to encourage the development of healthy behaviours for life,” said UNICEF Special Representative Jean Gough.
Improving the learning environment
But education at the Al Shioukh school has also been compromised by a dire learning environment. The school comprises 13 crowded, shabby classrooms. The oldest portion was built in 1916 as a barn to house livestock. In the 1960s, the barn was converted into a school and additional small rooms were built.
“The school is still housed in unsafe buildings, with rainfall flooding classrooms during winter, exposing children to danger,” says Principal Fadwa Al Jamal.
While the Al Shioukh community highly values education, a child-friendly environment is lacking. The unfit classrooms and the absence of facilities for extracurricular activities make learning even more difficult.
“We need new clean and healthy classrooms, a computer lab, a library and a safe schoolyard to play in,” says Ouhoud, a 10-year-old student at the school.
Improving water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools is one of many steps needed to substantially improve students’ performance. Beyond improved sanitation, a safe, protective and comfortable school environment is essential to help students like Ansam and Ouhoud realize their dreams of a better future.