Q+A – Child-friendly toilets key in fight to improve global sanitation

February 6, 2013

If toilets meet children’s needs, this will keep them in school longer, reduce the spread of life-threatening diarrhoeal diseases and help meet development goals, according to the charity Water For People.

At least 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have proper sanitation facilities. The combined effects of improper sanitation, unsafe water supply and poor hygiene are estimated to cause almost 2,000 child deaths per day, the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, reports.

“Allowing youth to become comfortable using toilets and practising good hygiene from a young age, means that as they grow up there are fewer people to educate and convince of the reasons that improved toilets are important,” said Kate Fogelberg, Water For People’s regional manager in South America.

“It’s much more difficult to change adult behaviour than children’s behaviour — solving the sanitation crisis is as much about changing people’s behaviour as it is about installing toilets.”

Governments are not on course to meet the Millennium Development Goal(MDG) target of halving the proportion of the population without sanitation by 2015 — one of eight targets agreed in 2000 by U.N. member states.

Water For People works with partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America to deliver improved water and sanitation services, part of its goal to ensure that every household, school and  clinic has access to water and sanitation.

“Children spend several hours a day at school, so improving toilets both at home and at school is crucial to solving the sanitation crisis,” Fogelberg said. “At schools, constructing hand washing stations with taps at varying heights makes it more accessible for children to wash their hands and creates a more hygienic environment.”

Fogelberg discussed the importance of child-friendly sanitation facilities with AlertNet.

Q: What is a child-friendly latrine?

A: “Many unimproved pit toilets in developing countries do not have a stable base, creating unsafe conditions in which a child may actually fall into the pit.  Simply providing an improved floor — cement instead of wood, for example — often reduces the fear that children may have. Child-friendly latrines must also provide easy accessibility for children.  This means understanding that toilets at different heights allow children of different ages to comfortably use them; in the case of squat toilets, smaller holes reduce the risk of a child slipping into the toilet.  Girls have particular needs especially as they reach puberty, and require safe and private spaces to manage their sanitary needs.

Q: What specific challenges do children face?  

A: “Children around the world are afraid of the dark, and it’s a sad fact that many have fallen into unsecure toilets, making them wary of using any toilet regardless of security and accessibility.  It’s also important to recognize that many young girls aren’t comfortable using facilities that are shared with boys.  This means that building separate facilities in a school for boys and girls is critical for ensuring their use.”

Q: What age range use child latrines?

A: “At home, children often begin using a child-friendly toilet when they’re being potty-trained, which is typically between two and three years old.  Schools are more difficult because there’s often a wide range of children from nursery school to high school all learning in one building.  This means that toilets need to be secure and accessible for the smallest and tallest of children attending.”

Q: How do they differ from adult latrines?

A: “Technically speaking, child-friendly latrines aren’t radically different from adult latrines.  They may include some toilet seats at different heights, or a step stool to reach the toilet; or they may be placed in a more conspicuous place at schools so kids don’t feel embarrassed to use them. What’s different however, is the critical realisation that height must be taken into account.  It’s not just about comfort, it’s about safety, hygiene and the health issues that may result from falling into a toilet, for example.”

Q: How do they work?

A: “We work to adapt the preferred local technology to be more child-friendly.  In Malawi, for example, improved pit toilets are often built at schools.  By simply reducing the size of the hole and foot pads, children are more comfortable using them.  In Bolivia, however, children once played with the flushing mechanisms.  This led to broken systems that weren’t quickly or efficiently repaired.  By … changing the flushing mechanism, Water For People and its local partners were able to install toilets that children could use without breaking.”

Q: Where are they located?

A: “One example comes from India, where Water For People invited young girls to help with the design of their toilets.  Contrary to the prevailing engineering wisdom which led to beautiful, centrally located toilets being constructed, the girls wanted a toilet that didn’t require they walk past male teachers.  The girls also wanted mirrors to check the placement of their saris. These are two things we wouldn’t have learned had the organisation not adapted to the local culture…”

Q: What is the means of installation and management?  

A: “Installing a child-friendly toilet is similar to the installation of any other toilet.  Water For People is working with small businesses in developing countries to ensure that infrastructure is properly maintained and repaired when needed.  This is critical for creating an environment where the NGO doesn’t need to return every time there’s a problem.  In the case of school toilets, it’s common to see the children participating in school health clubs, which often assist in the maintenance of their toilets.”

Photo Credit: A girl poses beside toilets in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, where 10,000 people share five toilets. July 8, 2010, REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

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