Where lack of sanitation prevents children from completing school, UB students offer help

Teams of University at Buffalo students generated ideas on how to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) facilities in India and Uganda as part of the Global Innovation Challenge. Photo: Douglas Levere

By David Hill

Published June 10, 2016 This content is archived.

“Girls will still have plenty of obstacles to grapple with, but if we can improve their access to hygiene products and services, we can help ensure dignity and independence in their lives, allowing them to move on to other pursuits.”
Julie Powers, senior, environmental engineering major
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A child with mobility problems can’t use the bathroom in his school because it has only squat toilets. Feeling like an outsider, he stops going to school.

A menstruating teenage girl doesn’t have the privacy she needs in her school bathroom, or maybe she doesn’t have the products she needs to manage her menstruation, and she, too, stops attending.

Millions of school-aged children with and without disabilities and who live in low- and middle-income countries around the world grapple with this lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene — or WaSH — facilities every day. In fact, it’s one of the biggest reasons why they don’t receive a formal education.

Over one week in late May, teams of University at Buffalo students representing a range of fields —architecture and planning, engineering, public health, chemistry, computer science, pharmacy and management — put their heads together to develop actionable ideas to help solve this problem in two countries with critical need: India and Uganda.

“For the 100 million children and teens with disabilities worldwide, the lack of adequate sanitation is a primary barrier to school attendance,” said Radhakrishna Dasari, a UB student whose team won the top prize in the Global Innovation Challenge, a hackathon-style event organized by UB’s Community for Global Health Equity.

“The challenge was all about prioritizing inclusive WaSH facilities to promote the education of all children, regardless of gender, age or ability,” he said.

“We collaborated with WaterAid, a leading international organization that works to increase WaSH access in dozens of low- and middle-income countries, to issue the challenge to our students,” explained Pavani Ram, director of the Community for Global Health Equity.

At the start of the Global Innovation Challenge, students heard from three experts-in-residence who are part of organizations working on improving WaSH facilities for children and or providing services for children with disabilities in India and Uganda.

“Our multidisciplinary teams of innovators, ranging from undergraduate students to postdoctoral fellows, were so moved by the personal stories shared by our three experts and learned tremendously from the depth of knowledge they brought to the challenge,” said Ram.

The top prizes, both of which honor innovation challenge donors, went to two teams, one of which brought its complementary multidisciplinary skills to bear on the tremendous problem at hand, and the other which stretched well beyond the fields of study of its members:

  • The Goshin Prize — the top prize in the competition — named for Arthur Goshin, MD, MPH, the Univera Healthcare founder who also established the HealthyWorld Foundation and is the founding director of the Office of Global Health Initiatives within UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
  • The Randwood Prize, named for the Randwood Foundation, which seeks to increase access to high-quality medical technologies and health care through education and international partnership.

Prioritizing inclusive WaSH facilities

Noting the scarcity of data available on inclusive WaSH facilities in schools, the Goshin Prize-winning team — Dasari, Ilhamdaniah Saleh, Duc Thanh Anh Luong and Chaewon Sue — developed strategies to collect school-level data on demographics and inclusive WaSH facilities.

They will create a platform for geographic mapping of schools to highlight areas where the need for inclusive WaSH is the greatest. The data will be presented to organizations, funding agencies and the general public.

“Touching stories about global issues can motivate people to act, but how do they act? We want to provide accurate, detailed and streamlined data that can assist the key players in their decision making,” said Dasari, a computer science PhD candidate at UB.

“One of our strategies is to give a voice to the kids regarding their WaSH facilities. Most often the money goes into building facilities, but no operational feedback is retrieved,” he added. “Our data model will incorporate a metric that represents money spent versus value added, based on the children’s feedback.”

Expanding availability of low-cost hygiene products for girls

The Randwood Prize-winning team members are Matthew Falcone, Nabila Ismail, Christopher Mussachio, Julie Powers and Alvin Samuel.

They proposed the development of a revolving fund to provide start-up costs to small businesses in an effort to scale up production of low-cost menstrual hygiene products, as well as a plan to promote wider distribution.

“To scale up distribution, we propose creating a mobile hygiene van that would sell the low-cost products, provide free samples of other menstrual hygiene products, and stock other hygiene products such as soap, hand sanitizer and incontinence devices,” said Powers, a senior studying environmental engineering.

“The mobile hygiene van would travel to schools and other currently unreached places such as slums, providing products, informational brochures and consultation from health student volunteers.”

Powers was particularly struck when she learned that in India, 23 percent of girls drop out of school once they hit puberty.

“This is something that we can absolutely fix. Girls will still have plenty of obstacles to grapple with, but if we can improve their access to hygiene products and services, we can help ensure dignity and independence in their lives, allowing them to move on to other pursuits,” she said.

Faculty affiliated with the Community for Global Health Equity will work with members of both teams to refine their ideas further, locate partner organizations in low-income settings and test their innovations.

Information about the Community for Global Health Equity can be found at http://www.buffalo.edu/globalhealthequity.html.


Pavani Ram, right, director of the University at Buffalo's Community for Global Health Equity, talks with students during the Global Innovation Challenge held in Hayes Hall.Photo: Douglas Levere

University at Buffalo student Beth Mercer writes down an idea during the Global Innovation Challenge. Photo: Douglas Levere

This colorful collection of Post-it notes reflects the ideas University at Buffalo students brainstormed during the Global Innovation Challenge. Photo: Douglas Levere