Across Vietnam, squalid school toilets endanger students’ health

By Staff reporters   October 27, 2018 | 05:14 pm PT
Children dread using them even if there are enough to go around, which there often aren’t.

At 4:30 p.m. on October 1, Lan, a 6th grade student in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District, slams open her house door.

She runs into the toilet and is inside for almost 10 minutes, not bothering to greet her family.

"I didn’t go the whole afternoon," Lan explains while washing her hands. Linh, her mother, is completely unsurprised: "It happens a couple of times a month."

Lan has cultivated the habit of not using the washroom at school because she does not have the patience to wait and also fear.

Her floor has toilets for both sexes. The girls’ bathrooms have three toilets and a big shower room for changing clothes and washing up after PE class.

But three toilets are far too few for 360 students. During rush hour, like the lunch break, all are crowded and stink. Lan and her classmates always have to wait in long lines in front of the bathroom. They often cannot wait for their turn due to the smell.

"When the bathroom is not occupied, I don’t feel like I have to go. But when I do, it is always super crowded. To avoid needing to go, I just cut down on water and soup."

She had a stomachache one time but still waited the whole day until returning home because she could not stand the smell or heat of the toilets.

Not only does she dread the squalid conditions, but is also disgusted with how signs are covered by lipstick and other stains, forcing school staff to cover them up with plastic sheets.

Dang Nguyet’s two sons in Hoc Mon suburban district in Ho Chi Minh City have similar stories about their school.

She tells VnExpress: "There are many days when they hurry me home so they can use the bathroom."

A school toilet in HCMC. Photo courtesy of Le Nam.

A school toilet in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nam

Duc, Nguyet’s first son, is haunted by the toilet bowls in school.

"All are dirty and wet and the toilet seats have shoe marks, but sometimes when I cannot stand it anymore, I stand on the seat too," he said.

There is no soap or tap water either to wash his hands. So he is loath to use the school toilet, and relieves himself at home before heading to school.

Duc’s little brother, Hung, is not fond of the school toilets either but his biggest fear is the overflowing fetid trash can.

Adult complaints

Tuyen, president of the eighth grade parents association at a secondary school in District 12, HCMC, said there are more than 1,000 students there but not enough toilets.

He checked the boys’ toilets and found damp and smelly floors, dirty urinals and rusted water pipes and taps.

When Tuyen brought this up at a parents-teachers meeting and requested the school to fix the problems, the school pleaded lack of funds. Two janitors work tirelessly at the school but it does not seem to be enough.

Tuyen said: “I spoke to many parents and they told me that their kids would rush in and out of the toilet because of the odor. Sometimes they don’t flush, sometimes they want to but the flush is broken. Conditions have gone rapidly downhill. Students now only go when they cannot hold it any longer and no longer see going to the toilet as a normal human need.”

Phung Thi Ha, who has worked for more than 10 years at elementary schools as a janitor, said schools often buy the cheapest faucets, urinals, ventilators and others to save money, and so they quickly rust and break down.

Huan, a janitor at a secondary school in District 12, concurs.

She told VnExpress: "Our job is just to clean and, if we see something damaged, report to the school. But fixing and replacing stuff does not happen as quickly as at home. So waiting is inevitable, but the students cannot wait."

The problem is worse in rural schools.

In places like Ha Tinh Province in north central Vietnam, many school toilets are in very bad shape and need to be fixed immediately.

It is estimated that 74 percent of 3,310 toilets at all schools, ranging from kindergarten to high school, in the province are overcrowded and unclean.

Song Tri Primary school has 1,180 students and only one bathroom each for boys and girls, and they often lack water.

Ky Son Elementary School in a mountainous area lacks virtually all essential facilities. It too has only one toilet each for boys and girls covered by a flimsy metal roof. During the rainy season the roof often blows off leaving the toilets open to the elements, according to a student named Bao.

Ky Son Elementary Schools toilet area. Photo courtesy of Duc Hung.

Ky Son Elementary School's toilet area. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung

Most students simply do not use them because of the dirty walls and horrid stench which can be detected from meters away.

Students’ parents demanded that the school administration clean and repair them since not using the washroom the whole day was affecting their children’s health.

Administrators cleaned up but did not repair the toilets.

Resources are always scarce in rural areas and many schools therefore rely on donations besides the small amounts they get from authorities and sometimes NGOs.

Building adequate and proper toilets for 500 - 1,000 students could cost a Ha Tinh school VND100-200 million ($4,300 - $8,600), officials said.

Nguyen Quoc Anh, deputy director of the Ha Tinh Department of Education and Training, admited toilets in rural schools do not meet students' needs and claims it is difficult to raise enough funds for the purpose.

"The province administration is instructing local governments to ... prioritize the construction of school toilets. This project will mobilize funds from many sources. In rural areas, building school toilets will be associated with the new rural construction program."

Statistics from Vietnam's education ministry show that more than 30 percent of 187,750 public school toilets in the country are not housed in firm structures. Of them, nearly 50,000 are in semi-permanent buildings and 9,360 in makeshift buildings and 1,720 public school toilets are either borrowed or rented elsewhere.

A firm construction, according to national construction standards, has columns, roof and walls made of reinforced concrete, brick/stone, wood or metal materials.

Data from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund saying nearly half of the world’s schools suffer from a shortage of facilities including sanitation, affecting 900 million children.

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