Raising Clean Hands: How WASH Is Essential for Achieving Universal Education

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Academy for Educational Development (AED)
Washington, DC
October 13, 2010

As prepared for delivery

Thank you for the warm welcome and kind introduction. And my gratitude to the Water Advocates and Academy for Educational Development for organizing this wonderful event and showcasing this beautiful exhibit for the public. This is the perfect setting –surrounded by these powerful images and messages – to be talking about WASH in schools.

As Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, I have worked over the past year to elevate two initiatives at Secretary Clinton’s request: water and youth.

Fortunately, today gives me an opportunity to talk about both: the importance of providing water, sanitation, and hygiene education – and the significance of starting early. We must teach our children—our future—to be better stewards of our world’s water and better caretakers of their own health.

No matter where you live—be it Boston or Bamako—schools are the foundation of strong communities. They are, of course, a place where teachers teach and children learn. But they are also a place where community health workers deliver life-saving messages and medicines. They are a place where adults gather in the evening for continuing education and town hall meetings. And they are a place where people come to vote and young democracies flourish.

It is a tragic irony that those who go to schools to learn, congregate, and protect their health, are often put at risk from the school environment itself.

The problem is clear. More than half of all primary schools in developing countries do not have adequate water facilities and nearly two-thirds lack adequate sanitation. Even where facilities exist, they are often in poor condition.

The consequences are threefold. First, health suffers. Schools can—and often do—become a breeding ground for diarrhea, parasitic worms, and other water-borne ailments. The World Health Organization estimates that diarrhea causes 1.5 million deaths per year; many resulting from transmission in schools.

Furthermore, schools without WASH facilities represent a lost opportunity to promote good hygiene behavior in the larger community. Data suggests that students who practice good hygiene in schools also help teach good hygiene practices to their parents, siblings, and friends.


Second, education suffers. Worm infestations can lower children’s IQ scores. Studies show that students are more prone to missing lessons in schools without WASH facilities. Such trends can have devastating long-term costs for students, communities and nations, virtually closing doors to opportunity.


Third, women and girls suffer disproportionately. Female school staff and girls who have reached puberty are less likely to attend schools that lack gender specific sanitation facilities. As we increasingly recognize the contribution of women to household income, health, education, and nutritional outcomes, nations simply cannot afford a lag in women’s education and literacy.


The bottom line is this: If we are serious about improving child health, achieving universal primary education, ensuring gender equity, and stimulating economic development, we need to be serious about providing safe water, sanitation, and hygiene education in schools.


The U.S. Government has a long and ongoing commitment in this area.

Together with Millennium Water Alliance, Global Water Challenge, and the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group, the State Department is rolling out the Ambassador’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene in Schools Initiative. We are also finalizing the addition of a fourth partner and founding sponsor: The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation.


The initiative aims to help U.S. Embassies around the world collaborate with experienced NGOs to implement a local WASH in schools project. We are already working with Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and looking to expand to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.


Through WASH in Schools, Ambassadors and other senior embassy staff are engaging the host government and local communities on the importance of WASH education to health, education, and gender equity.


Most recently, as part of the Hygiene Improvement Program, USAID worked closely with AED and other partners to scale up national WASH in School programs in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The program also conducted trainings and produced materials to share best practices with other organizations.


Our ultimate goal is for all schools to have adequate WASH facilities. But we must not be naïve about the challenges ahead. Maintaining sustainable water and sanitation services in schools is not simple. Constructing taps, toilets, and hand washing stations with soap is often the easy part. Setting up a robust system for operations and management and ensuring sustained and proper use can be much more difficult. We must ensure that WASH is incorporated in school curriculum and teacher training to complement the infrastructure with appropriate hygiene and sanitation messages and skill-building.


Even as we increase investment for WASH in schools, we must also increase monitoring and communication of what works and what doesn’t. A solid knowledge base is essential for informed decision-making and effective distribution of funds.


Finally, as we have noted in our own WASH in Schools program, success is contingent on strong partnerships. Many donor groups are supporting WASH in schools programs around the world, and many of you are represented in the room today. I am grateful for your commitment.

And, of course, donor efforts alone will not reach scale or be sustainable without leadership from national governments like El Salvador—a country that has demonstrated strong support for WASH in schools. I’d like to extend a special welcome to Ambassador Francisco Altschul-Fuentes, from El Salvador, who is here with us today.


Last month, we were fortunate to have representatives from nations throughout the world join us at a side event on water during the MDG Summit, co-hosted by the U.S., Tajikistan, the Dutch, and UNICEF. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was among 200 leaders highlighting the role of safe access to clean water in reaching multiple MDG goals. I encouraged the high-level participants to address water from multiple angles, including the environment, health, security, and women and children’s rights. And, of course, WASH in Schools is a part of that equation.


It is this type of dialogue—and events like this one today—that are crucial to building the partnerships that will change the lives of boys and girls in schools throughout the world—change their lives, change the future.

I would just close by pointing out that this Friday, October 15, the world will commemorate Global Handwashing Day. On this day, educators in countries around the globe will be showing their students how to wash their hands. It sounds simple to an audience that is accustomed to automatic faucets. But sadly, hundreds of millions of children will not be able to practice their handwashing lessons at school.


This is where we all can make a difference. I regret that I cannot stay for the panel, but I look forward to hearing the outcomes.


Thank you.