Where the schools have no loos

For Nguyen Cong Tuan, 10, a primary school student in Hanoi, using the toilets at school was a frightening experience.



The filth and stench made him afraid to go near them. So Tuan would wait until he got home; his mother rightly worried that he could develop urinary tract problems.



Yet Tuan could be considered one of the lucky ones - many schools in Vietnam, even in the capital, Hanoi, lack any toilets at all.



The Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) recently surveyed sanitation facilities in 11,200 schools across the country.



"About 30 percent of inspected schools had no toilets or inadequate toilets," says La Quy Don, deputy head of the ministry's student affairs department.



A separate survey conducted in Hanoi found that of 1,400 schools nearly all failed to have enough sanitation facilities, says Nguyen Nhu Hoa, deputy head of the office for planning and finance in the city's education department.



Failed standards



Regulations require one toilet for every 100 students and one tap for every 60 students.



"There are few schools in Hanoi that meet these standards," says Hoa. "And many schools in the outlying districts have no toilets at all."



Tran Thu An, a sanitation programme officer with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), says the issue of toilet facilities rarely gets the consideration it deserves.



The UN, as part of its "child-friendly" schools campaign in Vietnam, has been trying to focus on proper sanitation facilities. In the past year, it has been working with MoET, helping to design and build better toilet facilities across the country.



Priorities



Part of the problem is that there are so many pressing needs when it comes to education that sanitation is often the last thing considered.



At the moment, the government's priority is to replace all the makeshift shelters that serve as classrooms with concrete schools that can withstand monsoon winds and rains, says An. Yet when these new schools are built, toilets are not part of the plans.



The responsibility for building latrines lies in part with local authorities and communities, who often lack the funds or interest. So in the end, says An, toilets just do not get built. The result is that students are forced to use "the bushes surrounding the schools", she says. "It's hard to believe."



Tran Duy Tao, head of administration for the school infrastructure and equipment department at the education ministry, says it is not always a lack of money. Space is also an issue. In crowded, yet wealthier, urban areas, schools may have the funds but no room to build more toilets, he says. The rural authorities often have the land to build sanitation facilities but no money.



Health issues




The government is trying to tackle the problem, says Don, at MoET's student affairs department. In 2006, the government declared that all kindergartens and schools would have hygienic toilets and all children would have access to clean water by 2010.



But Don says at the current rate of construction, it is highly unlikely this goal will be met.



"This has a negative effect on students' health as well as their studying ability," says Don. "Students may try to hold it in due to their fear of dirty toilets. And where schools do not have toilets, students have to do it somewhere else and it causes environmental problems."



As for Tuan, he no longer has to wait until he gets home. Parents at the Hanoi elementary school were so upset over the dirty facilities and concerns for their children's health that a few months ago they decided to chip in and pay a monthly fee to have them cleaned.



For US50 cents a month per family, Tuan and his classmates are no longer afraid to go to the bathroom.



mo/ds/mw