Girl-friendly toilets

Published November 19, 2021
The writer is a Karachi-based independent journalist.
The writer is a Karachi-based independent journalist.

SAMREEN Ijaz, studying in Class 8, joined the Noor Kubra Elementary School for girls in Muzaffargarh two years ago and what a relief it has been for her. “I don’t have to miss a single day of school because of my period,” said the 16-year-old waving towards the pink girls’ toilet past the school’s backyard.

Today, Ijaz is able to manage her monthly cycle safely, hygienically and with dignity, and even talk about what she termed a “natural process” with confidence. But that was not always so.

She was among the unquantified number of school-going girls across Pakistan who are completely unprepared for the onset of menstruation; it is exacerbated by not having girl-friendly toilets (GFTs) in their schools. A 2017 poll by Unicef targeting 4,000 females between 10 and 35 years of age found 49 per cent girls had no prior knowledge of menstruation and 44pc did not have access to basic menstrual hygiene facilities at home, the workplace or school.

The reality for many teenagers is that along with stomach and body cramps, many miss school when they have their period, for fear of leakage. Ijaz skipped school on the first day of her cycle for the same reasons.

Pakistan has failed to own the menstrual hygiene challenge.

But that is all behind her now. Just having that pink toilet has brought a sea change in her.

And it is no ordinary toilet. This one is specially designed keeping in mind the needs of women and girls. It is well-lighted, airy, with a door that can be locked from inside, has water, soap, a mirror over the sink, another long one for looking at the back of the shirt for any stains, a washing area to wash soiled clothes, and an incinerator to dispose of the menstrual waste material.

Read: Pandemic worsens pain of periods for women across world

WaterAid is an INGO that works on WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). It built the toilet in Ijaz’s school and has built 49 more toilets in different government girls’ schools in Muzaffargarh, 60 in Swat, 70 in Islamabad and 30 in Thatta. In addition, it has a booklet with the design for construction, waste management, operation and maintenance of female-friendly toilets.

This toilet cost a little over Rs400,000 with the recurring cost calculated to come to Rs14,000 every year that the school must budget for. In addition, because it has a septic tank that would require yearly cleaning, a small sum needs to be set aside for that. The teachers in Ijaz’s school have hired a cleaning woman and pay her Rs2,000 from their pocket as they use the facility too.

Since 2019, WaterAid has been training teachers across schools in Sindh and Punjab on WASH, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and menstrual hygiene and health (MHH) to inspire behaviour change, through a specially designed government-approved teacher-training manual. But training teachers and teenage girls about MHM is not enough; it must be backed by gender-sensitive toilets and the task cannot be carried out by NGOs and INGOs alone. It is the job of governments.

This year’s theme on World Toilet Day (today) is about ‘valuing toilets’ and finds resonance with GFTs. It means when the government approves and consents to international conventions on WASH, it must follow through with its pledges at home. The government must be held accountable to put its money where its mouth is. For young women like Samreen Ijaz, this translates into investing in a sanitation system that caters to MHH needs.

Thirteen policies — three on health, four on education and six on WASH — have brief mention of MHM and MHH at the federal level for Islamabad Capital Territory, but nothing on the plan to bring the issue to life.

At the provincial level too, there are 12 policy documents — Punjab six, Sindh three, Balochistan two and KP one — that make a brief mention of GFTs, but without a compreh­ensive roadmap on how it can be implemented without any specific allocation for GFTs.

Even where there are plans, such as the Pun­jab WASH Develo­p­m­e­­nt Plan 2014-2024, the Sindh Strategic Sec­tor Plan and the Balochistan Education Sector Plan 2020-2025, that do specify the need for integrating MHH into health, education and reproductive health programmes, these are not thought through and seem half-hearted attempts. The apathy can be observed in the complete disconnect betw­een different government departments — the women development department, the local government and the planning and development departments — designated to carry out those plans.

Pakistan adopted the 17 SDGs in its domestic legal and policy framework, yet it has failed to own the menstrual hygiene challenge and has not taken the responsibility to address it. MHH is relevant to Goal 6 (on WASH), Goal 3 (health), Goal 4 (education) and gender-equality (Goal 5). To achieve these, it needs to speed up and ensure not just toilets for all, but gender-sensitive ones by 2030. By investing in menstrual hygiene management Pakistan can bring girls back into the classroom.

The writer is a Karachi-based independent journalist.

zofeen28@hotmail.com

Twitter: @Zofeen28

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2021

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