By Neema Atemi

Figure 1: Toilets before. Kilimani Primary School. Photo by Robert Kariuki

What would we do without toilets? A clean and safe space to relieve ourselves. A toilet is an important part of the house. It gives the residents a sense of security knowing they have convenience when nature calls. Toilets in the office also form an important part of office life. How can one work well while feeling uncomfortable?

It is a sad truth that even education is affected by poorly maintained toilets or a lack of them all together. Some pupils opt to dropping out of school due to improper toilets. Toilets form a key component of education in public schools. For millions of children from impoverished families, a good toilet facility is an attraction to them as nectar is to a bee.

Most schools in the slums of Nairobi lack basic sanitation facilities making life for pupils a daily nightmare. To attract and retain children in school, Women Educational Researchers of Kenya (WERK), in collaboration with UNICEF and Educate a Child, are rehabilitating toilets in schools such as Kilimani Primary School, Nairobi. Dr. Sheila Wamahiu, one of the WERK founding members, argued that the importance of toilets in a school cannot be over emphasised. Some schools have toilets that are unusable.

Figure 2: Sanitary disposal bins in a non-functioning toilet cubicle. Photo by Robert Kariuki

At Kilimani Primary school, the toilets were in poor condition and the only toilets the pupils – mainly girls – could access were the teachers’ toilets. The girls, are the most affected in this case. Dr. Wamahiu states that as much as a school without toilets will affect both girls and boys, girls are the ones that face the most difficulty. Boys can simply “go to the bush but girls cannot do that.” Girls are also more at risk of getting infections caused by unhygienic conditions. The toilet issue becomes greater as girls approach puberty.

Every month, a girl gets her menstrual period. Without proper toilets and sanitation facilities, they are likely to soil themselves which leaves them feeling uncomfortable. Some may even face ridicule and labelling from other children which can be very embarrassing. They are unable to interact with their peers freely which generally will affect their social lives. In many cases, girls skip school each month due to embarrassment and simply by the lack of a proper place to change and clean up. The time spent out of school pulls down on their academic progress and eventually, dropping out is inevitable.

Figure 3: Repaired wash basins. Photo by Robert Kariuki

Dr. Wamahiu insists that toilets must have washrooms and changing rooms, to make it easier for the girls. Washrooms also allow for proper hygienic practices to be observed. Poor health directly affects a child’s performance and attendance. Unfortunately, some school toilets lack water which means that even toilet maintenance is difficult and it further increases the risks of children falling ill.

The theme for this year’s World Toilet Day event is “When Nature Calls”. The United Nation’s (UN) 6th Sustainable Development Goal aims that everyone should have access to clean and safe toilets and that open defecation is no longer a practice by the year 2030. A study by the UN shows that billions of people have no access to a toilet. With no other choice, they turn to open defecation. Over time, on a wide scale, the amount of faeces builds up to a dangerously large amount. In most cases it is not being seized or treated and this poses a great risk to the water we consume to sustain our lives.

In some Kenyan slums, open defecation is a common occurrence, leaving residents at risk of diseases like cholera and typhoid. A lack of sewerage systems and an imbalance in the ratio of toilets to residents, are some factors contributing to this problem. In some cases, only one toilet is accessible by hundreds of people. The toilets end up over filling and with few willing to clean them out, they are left unusable. Exhauster trucks would do the job perfectly, if only they had road access to these villages. The distance between homes and toilets also discourages residents due to safety concerns, especially at night.

All is not lost, as initiatives like Peepoople, are gradually being adopted into the communities to provide sanitary and safe ways of handling individual waste matter. Peepoo bags are used by individuals in which they relieve themselves. The bags are then collected and dropped off to collection points where they are taken elsewhere for recycling. In line with this year’s theme, the waste is disinfected and then used as crop fertilizer.

While on the topic of schools, harnessing the fuel from human waste and using it for cooking gas can help with the reduction of costs of fuel. There are schools whose parents and pupils struggle to pay for the school lunch. The amount they pay includes money for fuel and with this idea, they can cut down one cost.

Operation Come to School (OCTS), is an initiative by WERK, whose objective is to improve learning facilities and school environments to promote child friendliness while increasing enrolment and completion rates of children.

Child friendly schools ensure the children feel safe, happy and comfortable. These three components enable a child to focus better on their studies and generally makes the school life one to look forward to.

She recounted a study done in Kibera, about violence against children. During the study, girls were asked to draw the spaces they felt were safe and those they felt were unsafe. Among the unsafe and unhappy spaces, toilets were mentioned. In the toilets girls would face attackers and assaults which restricted them from using them freely.

The location of the toilets is very important: “It is not just building a toilet, a very fancy looking toilet.” she says. She adds that these toilets should have plenty of light and be positioned in a place where somebody can easily keep an eye.

Dr. Wamahiu says that WERK is determined to ensure that all school in the slums of Nairobi have child friendly toilets that will not only be clean and hygienic but attractive to the users.