Pakistan: “A School With Toilets Is Precisely What We Have Dreamed About!”

From February 2016 to September 2019, the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR Japan), implemented a hygiene-enhancement project that was targeted at elementary schools of the Haripur District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, in Pakistan. Our project included building sanitation facilities, such as water wells and toilets, which were urgently needed by a total of 37 elementary schools with poor hygiene conditions. We also provided instructive workshops, aiming to guide schoolchildren in how to improve their hygiene habits.

Sobia Sultan, from our Haripur Office, who led project activities on the ground since its initial stage, reviews and reports on her commitment, and the details of the process during those three years.

Children washing their hands at the hand-washing facility, which was installed with the support of AAR Japan. (April 2019)

Hoping to improve the harsh school environment for the benefit of schoolchildren 

In 2016, I started to work at AAR Japan, to allow me to realize my wishes of working to help support children’s lives. Even now, from time to time, I remember the very first day when I visited a girls’ elementary school, which was my first targeted institution there.

The school was located in the countryside, far from any urban area, and children were studying in environments with very poor sanitary conditions. One of the girls told me that as there were no toilets in the premises of the school, she was forced to go to the bank of a nearby canal, in order to use that as her toilet, with only pebbles to use instead of toilet paper. It was such a pitiful story that I was unable to hold back teardrops from falling down from my eyes. As a child myself, I studied in an environment similar to her situation, the memory of which immediately led me to depict a vivid scene in my mind about how distressed schoolchildren had been facing such miserable circumstances.

I was firmly determined to do all I possibly could to improve the school environment, for I had been fortunate enough to acquire the position of being an AAR Japan staff member, who had been appointed to work for the benefit of such impoverished children.

Our primary tasks were to enhance the quality of sanitary conditions in the schools, and to help improve the hygienic habits of the schoolchildren, while visiting the targeted schools on a regular basis and having consultations with teachers and parents.

At the briefing session – which was held at each targeted school at the beginning of our activities – teachers, as well as parents and local representative attendees, maintained a receptive demeanor towards us. When they remarked about their hopes and expectations, using positive words, I felt encouraged, and it led me to renew my resolve. At a certain school, one of the mothers said, “There have been no toilets fitted in this school for some 30 years now, since I was enrolled at this institution. It has been our dream that there should be toilets installed in our school.”

Sobia Sultan, explaining the plans of the prospective project to teachers and parents.(April 2017)

Spreading appropriate hygiene-related knowledge to children.

After carrying out an assessment of hygiene situations at each school’s facilities, we subsequently undertook construction of toilets, hand-washing facilities and water wells, and also performed any necessary repair work on them. Additionally, we provided a four-day intensive workshop for teachers and parents, with the intention of guiding them to learn about the significance of hygiene education, as well as providing the method to teach the subject to their children – supporting them in their roles as protectors of their kids. The ultimate aim being to eventually enable them to teach their children themselves about how to get into better hygiene habits.

In the workshops, we disseminated various kinds of guidance to teachers and parents, so as to allow them to facilitate children acquiring important hygienic habits, such as hand-washing and teeth-brushing. Also, since most of the targeted schools were exclusively for girls, how to manage their physical fitness during a (menstrual) period was included in the training subjects. In Pakistan, there still exist a lot of districts where talking about a period, even among women, is categorized as a taboo subject. One of the teachers, however, shared an experience, which has left a strong impression on me: One day, the teacher found a girl who was sobbing and so she asked her why she was upset. It turned out that the girl was having her very first experience of a period at that moment, without having any knowledge about what a period was beforehand. Under these circumstances, the girl had mistakenly assumed that she had developed some kind of terrible disease. The teacher hesitated at first about explaining to the girl what a period was, and was unable to give her any appropriate advice on the spot. This led the teacher to regret what had happened, and how she had been unable to provide the girl with advice and support.

In the workshop, we told them that, even from an Islamic viewpoint, it is important and right to let children obtain proper knowledge about periods, and that it should be seen to be a common and ordinary process. After being introduced to various kinds of information, such as the idea that inappropriate care during a period could leave girls to be vulnerable to infection, it could be sensed that participants of the workshops had started to think in a different way.
In September 2019, when I visited one of the targeted schools that was situated in a refugee camp in Afghanistan, I heard one of the girls saying, “I was surprised when I had a period for the very first time, but my teacher taught me how to cope with the situation.”

I was quite delighted, because her words enabled me to understand that schools which we had once supported, have now learned to provide children with appropriate hygiene knowledge – as a normal, daily part of their school life.

Decoration on the front of the hand-washing facility: tiles with children’s pictures drawn on them.(Sobia Sultan in the center. October 2019)

Our strenuous and devoted efforts rewarded

In the midst of carrying out our various activities, we found ourselves challenged by many difficult problems. Some schools are situated in a secluded mountainous area, with poor road conditions causing a lot of transportation troubles, such as tire punctures or getting bogged down in the mud. This often resulted in us being stuck on the road at the scene of such accidents for hours on end. In the case of a school which is situated at the bottom of a steep ravine, we had to use donkeys to carry materials and machinery that were necessary for construction.

When we tried to excavate water wells in the schoolyard, to provide water for flushing toilets and washing hands, the excavation work did not go smoothly. It was not until  our fourth attempt that we were able to get the water running. While we were working for these schools, teachers prayed to God for water at the worship ceremonies that are held five times a day.

Most of our targeted schools have never been supported before by organizations such as NGOs. This meant that the schoolchildren remained very shy on our first visit and found it to be very embarrassing to talk with AAR staff members. However, they gradually grew to accept us, becoming more spontaneous and open up to us, as we were visiting their school, implementing educational workshops and building water wells and toilets.

During September 2019, I visited one of the targeted schools for the first time in a long while, where I happened to have a chat with a girl. Her name is Amber Shehzadi, a fifth grader, who was in the second grade when we launched our project there. She remembered me and told me her story as follows: “I was absolutely delighted when toilets were installed at our school. Coming to school has become fun for me. Now, I teach my younger brothers how to wash their hands with soap and to drink water only after boiling it.”

I feel satisfied that children of every targeted school have acquired hygienic habits, while being natural and friendly enough to accept us, like the fifth-grader just mentioned. After all our toil and strenuous efforts, I feel that we deserve this successful outcome.

Children who go to the school (right) which is located at the bottom of a ravine. For this school, we used donkeys to carry materials and machinery needed for construction. (September 2018)

Excavation of a water well. We always watched their digging with pounding hearts, feeling unsure about the outcome. (March 2019)

To provide further educational support for children with disabilities

I feel fortunate to have been able to engage in improving the sanitary conditions of as many as 37 local elementary schools, through various activities during the three years spent there. I would like to take this opportunity to show my appreciation for the generosity of the Japanese people, who have supported us in our work.

From now on, AAR Japan are going to work on promoting inclusive education, in which system all children – with or without disabilities – study together, focusing on two public elementary schools in Haripur as our primary targeted organizations.
We will continue with our efforts in attempting to enhance the quality of children’s lives and the social environment of the local community of Haripur. It would be very much appreciated if you would continue to afford us your kindest support.

This project has been made possible thanks to your donations, the NGO-related funds provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan, TOTO Water Environment Fund, and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

We distributed leaflets to schoolchildren, on which procedures of practices such as hand-washing are printed. (October 2019)

Sobia Sultan, the Haripur Office in Pakistan
After graduation from College, Sobia Sultan joined an NGO in Pakistan for 14 years, where she engaged in projects related to maternal and child healthcare, as well as sanitary initiatives. Since 2016, Sobia Sultan has been working at AAR Japan. (profile as of the date of the article)

Japanese-English translation by Ms. Motoko Komai 
English editing by Mr.Richard Whale
This article has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Japan's Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.