The Regional Fit for School Programme officially closed its 3rd phase on 22nd November in Bangkok, Thailand through the Fit for School Conference. Launched in 2011, the program aimed to provide simple, sustainable, scalable, and systems-oriented solutions to address the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) gaps in schools and create a healthy learning environment for students. The conference served as a platform to look back at how the program started, explore themes of emerging relevance, and for countries to share best practices, strategies, and direction for WASH in schools (WinS). Present in the 3-day event were delegates from the 4 implementing countries – Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, and the Philippines, as well as representatives from countries in Africa where the program is currently running.
With most of the key stakeholders present, the conference looked back at how the program started with the development of the Essential Health Care Package (EHCP), and how it evolved into a large-scale public health movement anchored in Wins policies and programs. The shifting of focus from building of facilities to ensuring proper maintenance and management was also recognized. The conference also celebrated the milestones and achievements of the program. From its initial launch with 44 model schools, the program was able to integrate the Fit for School interventions in 33,000 schools across the region through national WinS programming.
Another key output of the program was the development of the Three-Star Approach (TSA) to monitor and recognize WinS progress. The data generated were used in advocating for support and resources, and for driving transparency, accountability, and, ultimately, action for WinS. The presentation of country implementations also underlined how the monitoring system was very crucial in the scaling up process. Capacity-building and knowledge sharing measures in the form of guidelines, manuals, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), and learning exchanges were also instrumental to successfully scale up the program.
With the implementation of the program in some countries in Africa, delegates from Zambia, Malawi, South Sudan, and South Africa also shared how Fit for Africa supported the safe reopening of classes in their respective countries. The program focused on strengthening pandemic resilience through institutional and individual behavior change interventions. The goal was to replicate the approach that worked in Southeast Asia, learn from the experience, and apply them in the context of the specific country.
Although the pandemic posed some challenges due to the school closures, most of the stakeholders who attended can agree that it also accelerated WinS progress. The pandemic made it possible for policymakers and stakeholders to recognize WinS as a public health mecessity. The challenge, however, is translating this momentum into an actual course of action. Although the WASH agenda has gathered political commitment from different government agencies and organizations, a greater amount of commitment is still needed to ensure that it is institutionalized, and resources are allocated for WinS.
Looking forward into the future of WinS, aside from sustaining the already established systems, the plans presented centered on exploring other components of WASH such as menstrual health and hygiene, focusing on behavior change interventions, and organizing learning exchanges in Africa to learn from best practices within the region. With the partnership with Unilever and Hygiene Behavior Change Coalition (HBCC) through the DeveloPPP, involving the private sector was also seen as another opportunity to address emerging issues related to WASH. Sessions on other issues and topics related to WinS such as climate change, One Health approach, and gender and reproductive health were also conducted.
The 3-day event was concluded with the awarding of certificates to partners from the implementing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa. In the closing event, the roles of the different partners, agencies, and organizations were recognized as instrumental to the achievement of the program’s milestones and targets. It also emphasized the importance of intersectoral collaboration as the key to the realization of the WinS targets and goals.