Foxglove has just built a new toilet and hand washing facility in a secondary school in rural Cambodia. There’s a lot of excitement as a small army gathers inside the toilet block. The two mirrors get a lot of attention. We trial the automated hand washing sink. Administrators, community members, parents, teachers and students. Everyone’s happy. Brilliant.

Then it’s time to move to a more private space to talk girl hygiene. Four 9th grade students. Three female teachers. Two teenage interpreters. Two foreigners.

And here’s the prevailing question, “How can we best plan to minimise the sanitation challenges for teenage girls?”

The girls giggle and smile at each other. They’re 14-16 years old. They’ve never been invited into this discussion before. The students are looking at the teachers. The teachers are looking at the westerners. We’re looking at the students. They attend the school, use the toilets, and manage their personal hygiene. What do they think are the best solutions?

There’s a short period of awkward silence. The conversation starts with the light patter of thank you and promises to keep the toilets clean. It’s encouraging. Then they tell us they’re grateful for the size of the cubicles. They can be used as change rooms. It’s been a pressing need.

Really? I wasn’t expecting that.

I start to talk about sanitary bins. Have a show and tell with our sample bin and bin liner. There’s nodding and then the questions and solutions start to come. From every side. Let’s put bins inside each girls toilet cubicle. Let’s have only girls clean the girl toilets. Let’s add this task to the cleaning schedule. What if girls have hygiene training each year as a reminder? Can we have a separate entry from the boys to toilet cubicles and hand washing? It’s embarrassing walking to the toilets with a sanitary pad in hand.

I guess it’s obvious yet I wasn’t expecting that.

Now the girls are contributing wider ideas. It would be good to add steel grates and gate to the entrances and half walls. Otherwise the villagers may accidentally break the hand washing system or misuse the toilet block.

They’re thinking ahead. Keeping the amenities in use and clean. I wasn’t expecting that.

We talk and talk. More than an hour passes. So many insights. So many suggestions. And I’m reminded that it’s
all about getting the ‘right’ people in the room to ask the ‘right’ questions.

But who would have thought the ‘right’ people were a group of teenage girls in the Developing World?