By Marjorie Huang, DevWorks International, and Jacinta Nekesa Nangabo, USAID/USHA and DevWorks International
In 2021, globally at least 546 million children still lacked basic drinking water services, 539 million children lacked basic sanitation services, and 802 million children lacked basic hygiene services at their schools. Yet, as children spend a significant portion of their day at school, WASH services, including menstrual hygiene management, can reduce the potential of disease transmission between students and improve their educational opportunities and outcomes, particularly for girls. In Uganda, like in many developing countries, education departments at the district local government level continue to struggle to support WASH services in schools because of limited capacity and resources. At the recent University of North Carolina Water Institute Water and Health Conference, DevWorks International convened a side event of WASH experts to discuss and share learnings on their experience of WASH in schools in Uganda.
Reflecting on UNICEF/WHO’s recently released Joint Monitoring Programme’s Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Schools report, Richard Johnston of the WHO sounded the alarm that the global community is not on track to reach 100% coverage of WASH in schools by 2030. Meanwhile, Cleophus Mugenyi, the Commissioner for Basic Education at the Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) highlighted that COVID-19 and the recent Ebola outbreak in the country have highlighted the critical importance of WASH in school settings to the health and education of children, and in preparing Uganda’s schools for future pandemics.
To accelerate progress in achieving WASH in schools, Musa Birungi, Senior Education Officer/WASH Focal Person at the Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports, outlined the challenges that need to be overcome, especially the large financial gap to support schools. He cited that in 2021-2022 alone, his Ministry’s grant for WASH in schools only supported one to two schools per district. As such, the Ministry depends on civil society and the private sector to fill the financial gaps. However, rather than provide a comprehensive WASH in schools package, partners mostly provide piecemeal support and even then, this assistance is not equally distributed throughout the country. Also, not all civil society partners follow the MoES’ Three Star Approach to improving WASH in schools and other guidelines related to the design and construction of WASH facilities.
As a way forward, system strengthening from national to community level provides the framework to address these various challenges. Mary Namwebe, WASH Officer for UNICEF Uganda responsible for WASH in institutions, described how UNICEF has invested in strengthening the enabling environment and the capacity of relevant Ministries, district departments and school structures by providing a comprehensive WASH in schools package that includes support to build WASH infrastructures; strengthening school management committees, school health clubs, and parent teacher associations on WASH knowledge and skills, and maintenance of WASH facilities; and strengthening linkages between schools and communities through extension of water to neighboring communities.
Yunia Musaazi, Executive Director of the Uganda Water and Sanitation Network (UWASNET), remarked how there is a need to “step up advocacy around systems strengthening in Uganda” and to generate evidence of the benefits of WASH in schools to support these advocacy efforts. UWASNET uses WASH dialogue forums that bring together key stakeholders nationally and regionally to come up with solutions. Musa added that “partner coordination and collaboration is needed around governance, data collection for decision making and mobilizing resources” for WASH in schools.
Around the question of how to sustain the “WASH friendliness” of schools (i.e. how well schools maintain new facilities and hygiene practices) post-intervention, Jacinta Nekesa Nangabo, Senior Technical WASH Manager for the USAID Uganda Sanitation for Health Activity (USHA), described how USHA embarked on a long-term study of 101 schools to understand the various pathways to schools maintaining WASH friendliness. The initial findings highlight that schools go in and out of WASH friendliness and schools struggle to maintain WASH friendliness over time. However, support to institutionalization and school wide WASH practices is more likely to result in schools maintaining their WASH friendliness status as opposed to support to just infrastructure.
Patricia Namakula, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Advisor (MELA) for USHA, provided a key takeaway message on the importance of including all relevant stakeholders from the beginning of interventions to develop solutions that will work for them. This approach not only ensures more lasting support and ownership at the sub-national level, but what stakeholders learn from WASH in schools interventions, they can also carry over and adopt at home too.
 Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in schools: 2000-2021 data update. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO), 2022.