Last year, the thousands of girls of Bak Tuok High School in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district received a gift dearer than any pen, pencil or new pair of shoes: two new toilets. (The boys got eight urinals.)
For as long as most people can remember, the school of 10,000 students had just two functioning toilets, and they were technically for staff, though students did use them.
The other toilets, 16 in all, are no more than holes plugged with foul litter and suspicious black muck. It is best, really, not to look.
But this is not a happy story. Just ask the seven girls who were standing outside the two new toilets on a recent Tuesday afternoon, daintily holding their noses and pressing tissues to their faces to block out the stench.
“I do not want to smell,” explained Sek Sokun, a 14-year-old ninth grader.
“I do not drink much water at school,” she said, explaining that consuming less water means fewer trips to the foul toilets.
“I rush to go home after class to [use the toilet]. I don’t use the school’s toilet because it smells so bad,” she added.
The problem at Bak Touk is that it may have got new toilets last year, but it did not get new toilet cleaners. Already, one of the two new toilets is missing a door. The other has a lock that doesn’t work, which means that modesty for the female students at Bak Tuok is a group effort.
Sok Sovanna, the school’s director, said the problem with the school’s toilets was due to a shortage of money.
“The school needs more money to build toilets,” he said.
Every year, he added, the school conducts a fund-raising campaign for infrastructure improvements at the school, collecting voluntary donations from students. In 2002, that money was used to build a new wall. In 2005, a new gate. Finally, in 2006, the toilets came along.
The girls of Bak Tuok are actually among the nation’s better off.
Across the country, 34 percent of all schools didn’t have toilets last school year, while that figure rose to 58 percent of schools in remote areas, according to Ministry of Education data. And that’s an improvement over the 2001 to 2002 school year, when 57 percent of schools in all Cambodia didn’t have latrines. “Most schools in rural areas have no toilets,” said Pen Saroeun, director of the school health department at the Education Ministry. “It makes it difficult for female students,” he added.
Experts say the lack of toilet facilities is one of many factors that help keep Cambodian girls out of school.
In 2005, the World Bank conducted a study on basic education in Cambodia, which found that the availability of latrines was one of the factors most tightly correlated with keeping children in school. The toilet issue is even more pressing for females.
“[Latrines are] important especially when girls grow older,” said Hiroyuki Hattori, a project officer for education at the UN Children’s Fund. “By grade five or six, girls are more uncomfortable going to the bush for toilet.”
Lack of toilets is just one of many factors that discourage girls from going to school, but it is also one of the easiest problems to fix. “This is an area we could improve,” Hattori said. “It’s just a matter of money.”
It’s far harder to address the cultural values and economic desperation that also drive the gender divide in education.
The ratio of girls to boys in lower secondary school, for example, is 77 to 100, according to a 2004 socioeconomic survey by the National Institute of Statistics.
In upper secondary school it was about 59 to 100 and for tertiary education, boys outnumber girls by three to one, that same survey found.
“[G]ender disparities in professional and management occupations will persist for many years to come,” the study said.
Lack of education constrains employment opportunities. Young women in Cambodia, for example, can’t find work in the booming garment sector if they can’t read, according to a forthcoming poverty assessment conducted by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute.
That same study also found that if women don’t have basic literacy they can’t protect themselves, are more likely to be trafficked, and don’t know their basic rights. “Education is human life,” Hattori said.
Unsurprisingly, the quickest way to a better school toilet in Phnom Penh starts with money. Sisowath High School’s 8,000 students have 24 toilets—20 of which work—at their disposal, according to Siang Hai, the school’s deputy director. Students pay 100 riel to use them, though Siang Hai said the contribution at the school in Daun Penh district was voluntary.
“No students complain about giving 100 riel because they want the toilets clean,” he said.
Sun Letta, 15, a 10th grader, said she always pays, and that aside from the long lines during school breaks, she finds the facilities perfectly adequate.
“I want the school to clean the toilet,” she said. “[There is] no smell, but it’s not as good as our toilet at home.”
Norodom Primary School’s 3,200 students share 10 toilets.
“No toilets are broken,” said Lim Srey Phalla, deputy director of the school in Daun Penh district. Parents, she added, pay the $40 monthly salary of the janitor who cleans the toilets and reminds the children about hygiene.
“That’s why the toilets are clean,” she said.