Millions of children have been affected by school closures across Africa. Children have been at home for almost three months now. According to UNESCO, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest out-of-school rates in the world. Over one-fifth of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are out of school, followed by one-third of youth between the ages of 12 and 14, while almost 60% of youth between the ages of 15 and 17 are not in school. Given these statistics, education is a major priority if we are to achieve the SDGs and have a productive future generation. Even worse, when children are not in school, they are at a greater risk of being exposed to abuse, neglect and violence.
Whilst education is important, schools must remain safe to limit the risk of COVID-19 amongst children and their families when they reopen. It is essential that comprehensive hygiene and sanitation measures required to keep children and staff safe and stop the spread of COVID-19 are in place before schools reopen. Hygiene measures including access to clean water and soaps are of utmost importance in ensuring schools reopen safely.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water to prevent catching and spreading coronavirus. Children hear this statement everyday as the world continues to fight this pandemic. Some sing along to catchy tunes on handwashing, thanks to various handwashing campaigns running on TV and radio. And this is what we will continue to tell them when schools reopen. But the big question is - how will theywash their hands if theydo not have clean water in school?
One of the biggest challenges in Africa is the lack of universal access to clean water. In areas such as arid and semi-arid lands, water may simply be unavailable. While in other regions like crowded urban informal settlements, poor or non-existent sanitation infrastructure has resulted in unsafe drinking water, leading to water borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. This is a major problem not only in homes but also in schools.
According to a 2019 report by UNICEF and World Health Organization, billions of people around the world suffer from poor access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Some 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities. This includes school-going children in Africa.
To protect children from diseases such as COVID-19, we must ensure equitable access to clean water, proper sanitation and hygiene practices. When schools reopen, all Early Childhood Development centers, primary and secondary schools should be provided with adequate regular, and readily accessible clean and safe piped water, taking into consideration the population in every school. Boreholes should be drilled in schools that are not close to existing piped water supply systems. Handwashing facilities with constant running water supply and soap should be installed at the entrance of all classrooms, staff rooms, offices, dining halls, libraries, laboratories, and dormitories. Children with special needs should also be considered when putting in place such facilities. School buildings should be cleaned and disinfected frequently, particularly surfaces that are touched by many people such as doorknobs, window handles, toys, tables, teaching and learning aids.
In addition, the toilet to pupil ratio in all schools should meet the approved standards for both girls and boys. In shared spaces such as classrooms, libraries, dormitories, laboratories and dining halls, measures should be in place to ensure social distancing between learners.
Practicing healthy behaviors, like handwashing, is one of the most important steps toward ensuring children live happy and healthy lives. At ChildFund, we have been implementing Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects in various communities in the 9 countries where we operate in Africa.
Using community-based participatory approaches and leveraging on Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), our WASH projects focus on increasing access to safe drinkingwater, improving sanitation and hygiene behaviors and managing water resources. This includes drilling boreholes, pipeline extensions, shallow wells and rainwater harvesting systems, installing handwashing facilities,and teaching children, adolescents, youth, and their families about essential health habits like proper handwashing, which can help prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19.Since the pandemic began, ChildFund has distributed thousands of hand washing vessels and water tanks to vulnerable households and communities in 9 countries in Africa to ensure they have a place to store clean water and to wash their hands.
Putting in place these measures in all schools is not cheap. It calls for the allocation of more funds to the education sector by governments. Ministries of education should conduct assessments and develop reports on the current hygiene standards in schools and the gaps to be filled to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Long term, schools, with support from governments, communities, and non-state actors, both in education and WASH sectors, should enforce the preconditions needed to cope with such pandemics by ensuring decent hygiene and sanitation standards exist in schools. We should not wait for a pandemic such as this one for us to act.
Apart from ensuring all sanitation and hygiene measures are in place, governments should also seek children’s’ views when exploring options for opening schools. Children are the primary beneficiaries of education in schools; therefore, they should be consulted on what they need to be in place before schools reopen. No decision should be made for them without involving them. For example, while we worry about hand washing in general for children, girls going through puberty, if asked about their concerns, could point out to the lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities in schools, needed for them to manage their monthly periods with dignity.
This year, the Day of the African Child, to be celebrated on June 16, presents an opportunity to increase awareness on the ongoing need to fight for the rights of vulnerable children across Africa as we confront the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes the right to clean water and proper hygiene and sanitation. It is essential that children access their basic right of education, especially in a continent where so many are out-of-school. But while doing so, safety is of paramount importance. We must do everything we can to protect our children and ensure that they stay healthy and learn in safe environments.