Through Her Eyes: A Q&A with a UNICEF WASH Specialist

Through Her Eyes: A Q&A with a UNICEF WASH Specialist

A behind-the-scenes look at UNICEF’s work in India, supported by Xylem Watermark

In India, 25% of children (111 million) experience high and extremely high water vulnerability, with half of all schools lacking adequate hand washing platforms. Nearly 30% of schools in India lack usable toilets for both girls and boys, with unusable toilet facilities in 22.8% of schools. A lack of gender-separated latrines and hand washing stations with soap at schools has also been shown to lead to absenteeism of girls when they have their period, and most schools do not have adequate facilities to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.

In addition to this, a fifth of schools operate without tap connections, and many of those that do have tap connections either lack running or drinking water.  A total of 14% of pre-schools function without running water on their premises at all.

Over the past two years, UNICEF have been working across India, developing and implementing WASH programs to deliver a measurable and meaningful impact for millions of children by dramatically increasing their access to safe water, critical sanitation and awareness of safe hygiene practices.

By contributing to UNICEF’s WASH program in India in an ongoing partnership that is set to extend to 2023, Xylem Watermark aims to reach more than 3.4 million children with improved awareness and access to water, sanitation and hygiene through schools and pre-schools in the most vulnerable communities.

To learn more about how these programs are implemented on the ground, we talked with Pratibha Singh, WASH specialist at UNICEF India.

Tell me about your experience in India, where you work with UNICEF and Xylem Watermark to raise awareness of WASH practices.

I have been associated with UNICEF for more than 11 years, including six years in environmental protection, providing technical guidance and management support to schools, pre-schools, health care facilities, and menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

During program visits across India, it has been reassuring to see how UNICEF’s efforts to support safe WASH infection prevention and control practices in schools helped curb COVID-19 and facilitate safe reopening.

UNICEF supported the safe reopening of schools post lockdown by helping prepare cleanliness action plans for more than 94,000 schools in India. Handwashing with soap was promoted to 132 million people through the media; Eight million people were informed on safe menstrual hygiene management in 2021. I am proud to see its positive impact.

How has improved education around menstrual hygiene and sanitation helped to keep young girls in education?

When schools have separate toilets and menstrual hygiene management facilities, girls are more likely to stay. Drop-outs are reduced, which lowers the risk of early marriage and pregnancy.

On a program visit, I came across a bright girl from Uttar Pradesh named Manisha. She was ashamed of managing her periods, let alone safely. Training on MHM, organized by UNICEF, had a significant impact on her life and those around her.

UNICEF has been working with girls in places like Manisha’s village for years. Girls like Manisha educate and support younger girls in their villages and families on safe and hygienic menstrual practices. They arrange activities and training sessions at the village’s primary school, using games to dismantle myths and misconceptions about menstruation. It is reassuring to see how girls overcome taboos and become champions in their societies.

Can you outline what challenges the schools faced in Odisha or India before these WASH interventions? What are some of the challenges/issues still facing children in India concerning access to safe water and sanitation?

India has accelerated progress towards achieving universal access to safely managed WASH in line with the Sustainable Development Goals in an unprecedented way. However, deprivations affecting children and women – particularly in rural and marginalized communities – remain.

School and preschool closures during lockdown affected the functionality of WASH services over the past two years. While almost 80 percent of pre-schools (called Anganwadi centers) now have tap connections, 14 percent do not have running water on their premises and just over one in ten (11.3%) of schools have drinking water facilities but no water available.

Adherence to hygiene practices skyrocketed during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, but there is already slippage. Continued messaging and support are needed.

As per the Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) report in 2020, nearly half of all schools in the country lack basic handwashing facilities that include running water and soap, which underscores the need to continue our support for WASH in schools. While access to menstrual absorbents increased, there are discrepancies between and within states. In many places – particularly rurally – menstrual hygiene is still taboo as menstruating women and girls are discriminated against and deprived. Our catalytic support for MHM programs is still needed.

What were the different steps you went through to help improve access to water and sanitation facilities?

I worked on the rollout of the '100 Days Campaign' last year, which set an ambitious target to provide piped water supply in left-out schools and pre-schools. We supported the development of operational plans for all 15 states to achieve access to water supply in all schools and pre-schools. This involved facilitating convergence between education, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), and water supply departments of several states to align on a common agenda for children. Our effort resulted in the provision of tap water supply in 8.29 lakh (80.62 percent) schools and 8.71 lakh (77.99 percent) preschools. Exposure to water conservation practices at an early age will also build positive water habits in children, helping them lead sustainable lives.

Beyond gaining access to WASH, what else has changed for these students?

The key behaviors prioritized under this partnership included hand washing at critical times, such as before eating, after using the toilet, and after play/outdoor activities alongside using toilets and maintaining the safety of the water. These hygienic behaviors are crucial in preventing transmissible diseases, including COVID-19 - a significant step that facilitated safe school reopening as cases started to fall.

Manifesting positive hygienic behavior change requires long-term and consistent investment in individuals and communities. It needs consideration of approaches beyond hitting numerical targets or only providing physical infrastructure. Behavior change can only be truly sustained when last-mile populations, perspectives on gender, power dynamics, and community participation are all core to programming. This crucial achievement was possible due to the present partnership, which helped UNICEF continue our programmatic support without obstructions.

What is the biggest takeaway for you from the project and program overall?

Prevention is better than cure; it’s much better to tackle these issues immediately as they arise. The partnership with Xylem happened at an opportune moment; state governments looked for UNICEF guidance on improving WASH infrastructure and hygienic practices to reopen safely after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Xylem’s support enabled UNICEF to help state governments with gaps in WASH infrastructure and practices and then prepare school cleanliness action plans, followed by our supportive supervision during the implementation of these plans.

How will your work with UNICEF continue in the next year and what are your goals for 2023? Tell us more about your next big focus for the coming year and what achievements you’d like to see.

In 2023 and beyond, the WASH program in schools and communities remains a priority for the Government of India. The ongoing investment in the major flagship programs - Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen (SBM-G) Phase II, Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), and the Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan - remains critical.

These programs look beyond WASH to focus on health and education outcomes. UNICEF remains a strategic partner, at the central level and locally, to influence their roll-out. The window of opportunity is open for the private sector changemakers like Xylem to join forces in achieving those targets.

The pandemic has also provided an opportunity to transform and instill WASH norms and behaviors long term, particularly handwashing with soap in schools, pre-schools, and healthcare facilities.

UNICEF will continue advocating for and supporting the implementation of climate change and environmental sustainability-related interventions as part of ongoing WASH programming. This will scale up over the coming years to streamline climate resilience into all WASH programming.

It has become a greater priority as the world entered the ‘Decade of Action’ - the ten years remaining before the Sustainable Development Goals are to be realized by 2030. India is also witnessing the fallout of climate change.

Going forward, UNICEF will pivot to investing in more funding opportunities aligned with building climate resilience at the grassroots level, which is critical to mitigating the effects of future global trends and outbreaks.

Read more about how Xylem Watermark is working with its partners to solve water.