Leave No One Behind: Sanitation is not a taboo – voices of young girls in Sri Lanka

Date: 9th April 2018

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Editor’s Note: For the last month, the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA), WaterAid and WSSCC have facilitated national level consultation meetings with marginalized communities to identify key issues and messages to be represented at SACOSAN, the South Asian Conference on Sanitation and Hygiene, which takes place 10-14 April 2018 in Islamabad, Pakistan. This blog provides insights on the consultation in Afghanistan.

 

By Hemantha Withanage, Centre for Environmental Justice/FANSA Sri Lanka

Lankani is a 19-year-old girl, a school-dropout, living in a southern coastal town. She and her friends did not drink enough water when they went to school, especially during their menstrual periods. The toilets in school were not equipped to help them maintain menstrual hygiene, being dirty without a private space to change napkins, no disposal mechanisms, and having no supplies of sanitary napkins in event of menstruation starting suddenly. Lankani is not alone. Many of the school children in her age group are facing this difficulty. Education agencies are still lagging behind in providing adequate adolescent girl-friendly toilets in the school system.

Mahesvaree, living in a tea plantation in Maolsima in the central hills of Sri Lanka is a 46-year-old woman and a mother. She has no toilet facility in the field where she works picking tea leaves. Mahesvaree’s family and community has been living in the cold mountainous region of Sri Lanka for six generations, when the British colonials had brought them to the plantations. She feels that the problems that her grandmother faced will be there for her granddaughter too “generations changed but not the facilities at these tea gardens and there is no one to look into these matters.”

These stories were revealed during the national consultation held on March 27, 2018, in Colombo, in preparation for SACOSAN VII. The event was organized by the Centre for Environmental Justice with the support of Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), WaterAid and Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA). Government agencies, including the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, and several civil society organizations attended this event.

Sri Lanka has about one million adolescent girls. Many of them go to provincial schools which lack clean toilets. Despite government initiatives, out of 9,000 schools, approximately 1,300 schools still lack toilet facilities while many others lack menstrual hygiene facilities. Dirty toilets in schools along with the lack of facilities for changing and disposal of sanitary napkins impact girls’ attendance as they miss school on days when they are menstruating. They return home without changing the sanitary napkins. It is difficult for them to concentrate on their education during the menstrual period.

Sri Lanka is claimed to be the second highest literate country in the world but menstrual hygiene is still a social taboo and open discussion on the issue is culturally unacceptable. Even school teachers find it hard to educate students on menstrual hygiene and reproductive health, especially in mixed gender schools. “Some adolescent girls think menstruation is a sickness and want to seek medical advice,” Florida said.

The story is not much different in the urban under-served areas. Participants revealed during the consultation meeting that lack of toilets in some urban communities and industrial zones, such as Katunayake, leads to queuing in front of the toilets in the morning. “There is no safety or privacy while using these toilets. Sometimes we don’t have water in the toilets,” Renuka, a young female factory worker said. According to the Ministry of Water Supply and City Development, 180,000 new toilets need to build across the country.

Lack of clean sanitation facilities in public places affects women and young girls more than men around the country, especially the poor, who cannot afford to go to restaurants and other expensive places in the absence of public toilets. The lack of adequate water and clean containers for washing in public toilets add to the burden. Containers for safe disposal of sanitary napkins are also absent in these toilets.

According to the Sustainable Development Goals, safe sanitation should be achieved by 2030. Lack of coordination among the sanitation agencies and inadequate finance are major impediments for achieving this task. However, breaking the sanitation taboo in Sri Lanka is fundamental to achieving this task. Lankani will be travelling to Islamabad in the hope that bringing this issue to the notice of ministers, bureaucrats and academia attending the conference will ensure improved sanitation services for them!

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