Toolkit on Hygiene, Sanitation & Water in Schools
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Home > Basic Principles > Inclusion & Participation > Gender Roles and Impact

Gender Roles and Impact

Gender refers to the behaviors, attitudes, and values considered appropriate for boys and girls, men and women, in a particular cultural group. The gender-based roles and needs of women and men, girls and boys, often differ significantly when it comes to personal hygiene and sanitation. It is therefore critical to take gender roles and potential gender differentiated impacts into consideration in the design phase of school hygiene, sanitation, and water projects.

Projects that provide school water supply, sanitary and hand washing facilities, and hygiene training can improve health and increase educational opportunities for all children. However, such project are especially important for girls who have reached puberty and for female teachers. These stakeholders have specific concerns that affect the construction and maintenance of sanitary facilities, as well as the provision of hygiene training.

Clean and Private Facilities at Schools

Menstruation may seriously affect girls' attendance, attention, and achievement in school in both rural and urban areas. The absence of clean and private sanitation facilities that allow for menstrual hygiene may discourage girls from attending school when they menstruate. In addition, if a girl has no access to protective materials, or if the materials she has are unreliable and cause embarrassment, she may be forced to stay at home while menstruating. This absence of approximately 4 days every 4 weeks may result in the girl missing 10 to 20 percent of her school days. Inevitably, it will be difficult for a girl who misses so much schoolwork to keep up.

No systematic research has been conducted on the relationship between the lack of appropriate sanitary facilities and the drop-out rate of adolescent girls. Some information seems to suggest that about 1 in 10 school-age African girls do not attend school during menstruation or drop out at puberty because of the lack of clean and private sanitation facilities in schools (UNICEF, 2005). However, other studies suggests that poor sanitation facilities do not necessarily keep girls away from school, and that cultural beliefs are more of a barrier than the absence of sanitation facilities (Abraham, 2001).

However, female teachers face a similar problem. In the absence of clean and private facilities, they may elect not to come to school while menstruating. In the likely absence of a replacement, this means that effective school times will be reduced by 10 to 20 percent. This issue highlights the importance of providing clean and private facilities for all women of menstruating age at both primary and secondary schools.

Life Skills Training

When a school hygiene, sanitation, and water supply project is planned, dialogue on sensitive issues related to girls' hygiene should begin during the design phase and continue into the implementation phase of the project. In most cultures, these are sensitive issues. It is therefore important to create an environment that allows for an open dialogue in which children feel free to talk about issues such as sex, urinating, defecating, and menstruation. To enable open discussions, it will often be necessary to separate girls from boys and to group the children by age.

In many areas, especially rural areas in developing countries, gender-related hygiene and health considerations must be addressed in primary school as well as secondary school settings. Poor children in developing countries tend to enter school late, and they often have to repeat classes due to household, caretaking, or seasonal agricultural duties that cause them to miss school. In some countries, children automatically have to repeat a class when they have missed a set number of days, regardless of their actual school performance. As a result, many girls reach adolescence while still enrolled in primary school and thus need sanitary facilities that can accommodate their needs.

Division of Tasks and Roles

The school is a place for children to learn about teamwork and cooperation in a non-discriminatory and gender-balanced way. Such teamwork begins when women and girls are involved in the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of hygiene and sanitation facilities. It entails building awareness among teachers and other adults who deal with school children so that they do not automatically assign "girl's" tasks to girls and "boy's" tasks to boys. Figure 1 illustrates a school setting in which girls and bys both participate in the maintenance duties associated with school facilities.

Figure 1. Gender Parity in School Tasks
Source: UNICEF Nepal

Safe School Sanitation Facilities

Girls will not use facilities that are situated in an isolated location because of the risk of rape or harassment (box 1). This problem of rape and harassment at school toilets has been mainly reported for the Southern part of Africa. In a Medical Research Council survey conducted in South African schools in 2000, over 30 percent of girls reported being raped at school.

Box 1. School Rape — A Story

Two students aged twelve and fourteen raped nine-year-old LB in the school toilets at her primary school in Guguletu, a township near Cape Town. She was on her way to the girls' toilet when the two boys intercepted her and took turns raping her in the boys' toilet.

The principal convinced LB's family not to press criminal charges against the boys and instead to accept a monetary payment of "seduction damages" from their parents. The principal met with both sets of parents. The parties agreed that LB's family would be paid a total of R120 (US$20) to cover transportation costs for taking the girl to and from the hospital. So far this has still not been paid.

Because her parents do not have money to send her to another school, LB is still attending the same school as the two boys. The school has taken no steps to counsel or discipline the boys, and has done nothing to further ensure LB's sense of security and well being in school. A social worker treating LB expressed concern for the child's ability to improve as "she's going back into the same environment" each day. The social worker told Human Rights Watch that LB is "not herself, she's been behaving differently, wetting her bed. She's easily frightened, confused and forgetful." LB's mother told Human Rights Watch: "I can't understand how nobody saw anything or helped my child . . . I don't feel she is safe."

Source: Human Rights Watch 2001

Girls' safety can be increased by locating facilities close to the school building. However, in some cultures it is unacceptable for girls to be seen visiting a toilet, so identifying an appropriate toilet location requires balancing different considerations and making decisions in a participatory manner, ensuring that women and girls are adequately involved in toilet design and construction.

Although this is generally considered a "girl's problem," harassment and molestation also take place among children of the same sex. The provision of safe facilities can alleviate this problem, but in the long run only a change in attitude will eliminate it.

Linking to Activities in the School to Home and Community

Without mobilization and motivation of the community as a whole, the impact of hygiene, sanitation, and water supply in school projects, especially the hygiene training component, may be limited. Establishing good hygiene practices in schoolchildren's homes will lead to improved health for the entire family, and may also result in girls' being less likely to be kept home to take care of sick family members.

In addition, hygiene, sanitation, and water supply activities in the schools can be linked to improved hygiene, sanitation, and water conditions in children's living environment. Many children, especially girls, miss time at school because they have to walk long distances in order to fetch water due to the lack of water supply and sanitation facilities in the community. Linking hygiene, sanitation, and water supply in schools projects with community projects aimed at improving water supply, sanitation, and hygiene may result in a better use of resources that will increase positive health impacts in both the community and the school, particularly for girls.

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