Millions of Bangladeshi children lather up for global handwashing day
by Saiful Islam Shameem
KHULNA, 15 October 2009 - It is almost midday on a hot and humid Thursday as hundreds of school children sit alongside long, makeshift troughs with soap in one hand and a bottle of water in the other.
As the clock hits twelve noon, these children begin vigorously pouring water on both hands, giggling as they work the soap up into a creamy lather.
The sun is sharp and directly overhead but that has not deterred these children from joining in a mass demonstration of handwashing at a school in Khulna, the third largest Bangladeshi city, some 330 km south of the capital Dhaka.
The exercise is part of the second annual Global Handwashing Day, an event which is being celebrated with special activities in more than 80 countries worldwide. In Bangladesh alone an estimated 18 million children took part in discussions, demonstrations and simultaneous displays of handwashing on the day.
The focus of this year’s event is on recognising that children are agents of change in their community: when they learn safe hygiene practices at school they then share these messages within their homes and communities.
“This is a great day for us. Today we completely learnt about washing hands hygienically— how to use soap after defecation and before eating food, cleaning nails and rubbing fingers with foam to remove germs at least five times a day,” says Niaz Mohammad Anto, a class five student of Khulna Zila School, which was the main venue for the handwashing demonstration in Khulna.
“We were asked by our parents before to wash our hands with soap, but we had actually never learnt how to do it properly,” acknowledged Anto, who was flanked by his three friends who had identical views about their knowledge of handwashing.
“I got information about handwashing with soap from my family and also from the TV. But I think today I learnt the best,” added Mustahid Billah, showing both of his clean hands that he had just washed five minutes ago. He continued: “Earlier I used to think that washing one hand at one time was enough to remain safe, but now I know that both hands need to be washed together to remove germs.”
Most Bangladeshi people eat their meals with their right hand and there is a cultural tradition of washing only the right hand before eating. However, the events in Khulna and around Bangladesh emphasised the importance of washing both hands.
Saima, a class eight student from Coronation Girls High School, agreed with Mustahid that she was not aware of the proper handwashing technique before today. She now wants to pass on her knowledge to her family’s domestic helper - the key person who cooks their meals.
The hand-washing messages on TV, radio and in the newspapers inform and motivate people about handwashing, but many agreed they do not indicate how to wash hands properly.
The headmistress of Coronation School, Ms Farah Naz, feels the main significance of the handwashing demonstration was that the students learnt it in a “joyous’ environment. “We have imposed nothing on them. Instead, the girls were very happy to participate even though it is a holiday.”
Asked about the hygiene conditions at her school, Farah Naz, said that the school, which has a record of achieving top results in public exams, has only twelve toilets for the 2,400 students of the school.
Over 8,250 school children, mainly girls, took part in the practice of proper handwashing with soap at their 10 respective schools in Khulna this year.
Bangladesh is currently named in the Guinness World Records for its efforts in the first Global Handwashing Day, held in 2008.
The global handwashing day campaign was initiated in 2008 under a public-private partnership for handwashing with soap where UNICEF, WHO, government’s DPHE, private Unilever as well as local and international NGOs such as WaterAid, BRAC, CARE, Save the Children, NGO Forum and Safe came together in Bangladesh to observe the day.