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Hear their voices

  • Published at 01:31 pm February 16th, 2016
Hear their voices

The horrid stench of human waste fills every corner of the room. The floor is ankle-deep with unidentified brownish fluids. No tissues, towel, soap, or water in sight. The last time this bathroom experienced the hard scrub of a brush and disinfectant is a distant memory.

These are the conditions of many toilets in Bangladeshi schools.Where students should be able to relieve themselves during breaks when the need arises, they resort to “holding it in” and avoiding drinking water at school altogether, both of which lead to negative health effects such as urinary tract infections and painful constipation.

“Personal hygiene is an issue, especially for girls, but there’s no one to tell the story from their point of view. Schools are so busy with other things,” said Md Mamunur Rashid, Manager, Save the Children, Bangladesh.

Girl children often miss school during their menstrual cycle because there aren’t sufficient wash facilities in schools. Unusable bathrooms thus become a barrier to gender inclusivity.

Children have limited avenues by which they can raise their voices and school administrators rarely address student complaints.

A group of children from the National Children’s Task Force conducted a study on secondary schools in Savar with support from Save the Children, Bangladesh.

The study revealed that not only do students lack access to decent sanitation facilities, they also are sometimes subjected to the task of cleaning the teachers’ bathrooms, which are off-limits for the students themselves.

While there is typically an ayah or cleaner in each school, they are responsible for cleaning the entire school premises so the bathrooms are often overlooked.

Non-government secondary schools are run by private individuals.

While teacher salaries are directly disbursed by the government, other elements of the school budget funded by student tuition fees are left to the discretion of private managers.

Theoretically, these managers are accountable to a School Management Committee (SMC) comprised of local leaders.

The SMC is meant to oversee the utilisation of school funds but a lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms means that these funds are often “diverted” away.

Save the Children, along with partner organisations, has a plan to work with the Ministry of Education to set a unified budget for schools so that sufficient money is spent on maintaining WASH facilities and raising children’s voices in the decision-making process of SMCs.

Save the Children has partnered with a local technology firm, mPower Social, to develop social audit tools that can help raise the voices of school children.

An innovative tablet application called VOICE has been developed which allows children to report problems with their school sanitation facilities.

School authorities receive updates from an automatic web dashboard and are able to respond to the needs and ensure that facilities are maintained. This also allows for monitoring from external authorities.

The system creates a mechanism for children to voice their concerns and for follow-up actions to be tracked.

Anyone can take a look, and please do. This makes possible a new way of crowd-funding from readers of our own community. 

If you would like to contribute to alleviating the situation in any of these schools, please get in touch with us here: http://nctfbd.org/nctf-voice.

Creative crowd-sourcing websites such as Kiva that link underprivileged citizens directly with privileged citizens have been very successful in other parts of the world.

Perhaps Bangladesh is ready for this too? Otherwise, unless the government or other donors scale up this initiative, it may remain limited to only 30 schools in Savar.

Information technology is transforming health care systems around the world and has the potential to have great impact in the education space too.

Technology can disproportionately improve the lives of millions of children who lack access to much-needed basic services.

But this will only happen if donors, NGOs, the government, and private sector companies focus on the needs of children on their behalf.

In Bangladesh, thanks to the Digital Bangladesh vision of the current government and the innovations of the ICT Ministry and A2I, new technologies are revolutionising the nation’s service delivery system.

For children living in under-served communities who often can’t get the care that they need, innovative and easy-to-use social audit tools based on technology can play an important role in helping them raise their voices to ask for help.

We must also wonder about how to make such tools commercially viable.

Perhaps private sector companies targeting consumers at the bottom of the pyramid could consider supporting such initiatives.

Media and civil society may also play a role to vocalise the needs of under-served children and make sure new solutions reach and benefit all families, urban and rural, girls and boys, rich and poor. 

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