The drive to bring safe water and sanitation to youngsters in the tsunami-affected Indian Ocean area has highlighted the need for these basics in schools around the world to improve the health and education of millions of schoolchildren, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said today.
"The tsunami has turned the spotlight on a global crisis affecting more than 1 billion people every day, particularly children," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy told the opening of the three-day "Roundtable on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education for Schools" in Oxford, England.
"Safe water and sanitation are essential to protect children's health and their ability to learn at school. In this sense, they are as vital as textbooks to a child's education."
If it failed to provide these basic services for schoolchildren, the international community could very well miss three of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline: gender parity in education, universal primary education and environmental sustainability, UNICEF said.
Only 57 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa have been drinking safe water and only 35 per cent of children in South Asia have had access to basic toilets. The two regions also have the lowest rates of school enrolment and the highest numbers of girls who do not go to school, even though a study in Bangladesh has shown that separate toilets for girls could increase their school enrolment by 15 per cent.
"Getting and keeping girls in school is a major step toward reducing poverty in the next generation and improving child survival rates," Ms. Bellamy told the event, co-hosted by the International Water and Sanitation Centre. "And making schools more girl-friendly means they automatically become better environments for boys, too."
The lack of basic sanitation and safe water was also denying children a critical opportunity to learn basic hygienic activities like when to wash their hands, which by itself could reduce deadly diarrhoeal diseases by at least 40 per cent, UNICEF said. It noted that some 1.6 million children die annually from these diseases every year and millions more are left malnourished, weak and unable to learn.
Education in good hygiene would also enable children to become health educators for their families, passing on vital information and skills that could reduce the vulnerability of their households to deadly waterborne diseases, the agency said.