PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (February 9, 2012) — Eighteen-year-old Yves Nolly Lindor is teaching students at Pétion-ville National School about the importance of improved sanitation.
Just outside the school's new UNICEF-constructed washrooms, she explains that hand washing is essential to prevent the spread of disease.
"We work in groups, discuss cholera and health hazards in school," Yves Nolly said afterward the training had ended.
Her messages are part of a program run by UNICEF partner Plan International. Conveying these lessons to students is especially critical because children are agents of change: They bring health messages home and share them with the broader community.
An important part of UNICEF's work in Haiti is improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); it is literally a matter of life or death.
Over a million people were displaced by the January 2010 earthquake, many of them forced to live in camps with limited access to clean water and sanitation. A staggering 5,000 schools were damaged or destroyed by the disaster—but even before that, sanitation in schools was often very poor, putting children at risk of waterborne diseases.
After the quake, a devastating cholera outbreak made proper sanitation more important than ever. Hundreds of thousands of people have been sick with cholera since the outbreak began in October 2010, and more than 7,000 have been killed.
UNICEF provided WASH services in displacement camps in the aftermath of the disaster. From 2010 and 2011, UNICEF responded with WASH improvements to 198 schools, including new latrines and hand washing stands. With partners, UNICEF has also reached schools with chlorine tabs, posters about cholera prevention and soap.
"Some might think that putting up WASH facilities is enough," said Mark Henderson, UNICEF Chief of WASH programs in Haiti. "But that's actually not the case. Most of our time is spent on training people on how to use the facilities. This includes teaching students on how to wash their hands properly, but also training those running the schools on how to manage the facilities we and our partners provide."
This latter point is key: For improvements to be sustainable, schools and communities must take ownership of their WASH facilities. UNICEF is working with the Haitian government to create at a set of minimum standards for good sanitation and clean water in schools.
After Yves Nolly and her colleagues finished the training session, a group of about 20 students and teachers set out to examine the school's sanitation situation.
They found rubbish in the schoolyard, and inside the washroom—which had opened just a few weeks ago—they saw that there was no running water.
It turned out the headmaster had shut off the water because the students had been using it inefficiently.
"Unfortunately, this is not the only school were we and our partners have encountered such a situation," said Henderson.
After a quick discussion, the headmaster promised to turn the water back on, and Plan International agreed to monitor the situation. School officials also promised to provide trashcans for the students.
With continued efforts, the school will offer a friendlier, more sanitary environment for its 2,000 students—who can then spread the word to their own families and communities about how to keep themselves healthy and safe from disease.