How to ensure Indian girls go to school? Install a proper lavatory

Six-month deadline set for government to offer basic facilities to boost education and reduce 'open defecation'

India's highest court has ordered the authorities to build toilets for pupils in all government schools within six months in a move that campaigners believe could help improve the plight of girls' education in a nation where proper sanitation is a luxury.

The Supreme Court said it was essential the government provided basic facilities such as clean drinking water and lavatories if it wanted to encourage parents to send their children to schools.

India bears the notoriety of being a nation where more people have a mobile phone than are able to make use of a proper lavatory. Up to 700 million Indians do not have access to a toilet, instead engaging in "open defecation".

The country's rural development minister, Jairam Ramdesh, said last week that 60 per cent of those people around the world who did not have a toilet lived in India.

Announcing a plan to build 100,000 "bio-degrading" lavatories for villages across the country, Mr Ramesh said: "We are the world's capital for open defecation. It is a matter of shame, anguish, sorrow, anger…If we remove it totally, we would achieve one of Mahatma Gandhi's aims of clean villages... we would reach out to God's fresh world."

Campaigners say the provision of toilets in schools is essential to encourage school attendance, especially for girls. Shireen Miller, a director of Save the Children India, said the Right to Education Act that came into effect in 2010 had in theory guaranteed pupils access to basic facilities such as toilets.

"We all need toilets and it's both a health and sanitation issue," she said. "It's especially important for girls as it was found that where there were not toilets, girls were more likely not to attend school and even to drop out."

A recent report in the Times of India claimed that one government girls' school, the Government Girls Inter College in the north Indian city of Varanasi, did not have a single working toilet even though it had 2,485 female pupils.

One student Rajni Maurya, told the newspaper: "There is no supply of water. Some taps are broken, while in some toilets, there are no taps at all. The other toilet remains locked and is reserved for teachers, despite the fact that there is a separate set of toilets for them."

Mr Ramesh said he believed India could provide sufficient low-cost toilets and end open defecation within 10 years. But the challenge is enormous. Back in 2007, one of his predecessors in the rural development ministry, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, predicted the practice would be ended within five years.

As it is, in addition to the hundreds of millions of people without access to a lavatory, many thousands are still employed as so-called manual scavengers and clean toilets by hand and carry away the waste on baskets on their heads.

Bezwada Wilson heads Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation which campaigns to end such practices and to encourage the development of flush toilets. He said he welcomed the court's decision but said the government must insist the lavatories were properly cleaned and maintained. "It's very difficult for girls," he said. "When we are planning sanitation we never look at things from the women's perspective."

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