"I enjoy staying in the classroom where I can concentrate on studying," fifth-grader Lalit Khatri told me when I spoke to him at the Pashupati Primary School in Dashera village, which is located in the Jajarkot District of Nepal.
Through its local partner, Nepal Water for Health, Concern recently implemented a program to improve water and sanitation facilities at Lalit's school in an effort to promote basic health for the students of this rural region. I was back to visit with the children and teachers and see how the project was impacting their lives.
Nepal has the poorest drinking water and sanitation coverage for its population in South Asia and a correspondingly high rate of waterborne diseases. In the area in which Concern works, the most prevalent diseases are dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis and cholera. The cholera outbreak in 2009 claimed over 200 lives in Jajarkot district.
Lalit explained what had changed at his school since the project was implemented: "Now the school is clean and free of bad odors because of new toilets. And because of a new water tap, we have clean water, and have learned about the need to wash our hands."
The situation here was very different four months ago when Concern first became aware of the problem: the area around the school was filthy, smelly, and dangerous. In the absence of toilets, younger students used the areas around the school, exposing themselves and other children to the transmission of waterborne illnesses, all highly preventable diseases which are too often fatal in this remote region of Nepal.
At Lalit's school, students at higher grades, particularly girls, and female teachers, would walk long distances in search of isolated and open spaces so they could have privacy. Similarly, when the children needed clean drinking water, they were forced to travel to nearby houses, which hindered their attendance of class.
When Concern's team in Nepal learned of the situation at the school, it became immediately clear to us about the urgency to begin a water and sanitation project.
Improved hygiene behavior, which was taught in the school as a component of the project, has now been passed down by the children to their families -- something that has proven in the past to bring about positive change at the community level.
Apart from the obvious improvements in health and hygiene practice, the teacher credits Concern with contributing to her students sense of dignity and self-respect: "The water, sanitation and hygiene program in our school has not only provided us with services and facilities but we have now moved from shame to dignity. Before we did not feel safe or secure and often felt humiliated."
Recent surveys show that 59 percent of public and community schools across the country do not have any toilet facilities, a factor which has contributed to the increasing rate of girl dropouts per year. Concern has been working to improve the situation so that girls are encouraged to return to school and continue with their studies.
According to the United Nations Human Development Index, in Nepal, more than 60 percent of women over 15 are illiterate; and nearly 10 percent of all female children are currently not enrolled in school.