School brigades promote handwashing, health and hygiene
By Naimul Haq
Shariatpur District, Bangladesh, 15 October, 2010: It’s a sunny afternoon in Shariatpur District and eight year-old Fickriya Akhtar is leading six of her schoolmates down toward a dilapidated, thatched-roof house next to a dry pond. Today, the students will become teachers, walking from house to house, spreading their important message.
Fickriya organizes a courtyard discussion and, gradually, the neighborhood gathers around. There is a hush as they wait for the children to speak. “We have come here to find out if you and your family members have knowledge about good hygiene and regularly practice it,” says Fickriya, confidently. She calls on 63 year-old Aajibon Nessa, and explains to her why it is necessary to stay clean and healthy. The other children roll out posters illustrating proper hand washing techniques and what a clean living environment should look like.
School Brigades are groups of students who pay regular visits to local households to promote good hygiene and build awareness about health-related issues. The Brigades are part of a wider UNICEF programme focused on Sanitation, Hygiene Education and Water Supply in Bangladesh (SHEWA-B).
At Botna public school there are seven Brigades, comprising 60 students. Each Brigade has a name and a senior student who acts as a Brigade Commander. Fickriya commands Golap (Rose) Brigade.
Sharing knowledge and tracking progress
Not surprisingly, Aajibon, a widow with her son the only earner for a family of five, has no sanitary latrine. Nor does she own a tubewell, though she says she does have access to a neighbour’s. Their two-room house is made of jute sticks, straw and bamboo built on desiccated clay plinth. A tubewell or sanitary latrine would be considered a luxury for a family like Aajibon’s who can barely manage two meals a day.
The students explain to Aajibon and her daughter-in-law, Khadija Begum, that defecating in the open bush is not good for them or their community, and encourage them to save money to buy their own latrine.
The School Brigades observe conditions at each household, and keep records so they can track of the progress of families, especially the very poor. They record information about hand washing with soap, access to a latrine, sources of drinking water and safe disposal of infant’s feces.
Learning for a healthy life
“The Brigades have become very popular”, says Faruk Ahmed, the school’s headmaster. “The students show tremendous enthusiasm in their work and are well-respected for their contributions in the community”.
The Brigades set out from school once a week to conduct home visits in their allocated territory. “It’s like a competition among us”, laughs Fatema Akhtar, Brigade Commander, “The more homes we visit, the better we feel. When we find a clean house and a family practicing good hygiene, it boosts our strength”.
Botna public school is one of 77 in Shariatpur that runs Brigades, and in this Upazilla alone, approximately 32,396 houses have so far been visited and inspected.
Practicing what they preach
Shirin Akhter of Bangladesh Organisation for Development Cooperation (BODC), one of UNICEF’s partners in the field, says “We don’t believe the community would be convinced unless the students themselves practice what they promote”.
On Friday 15 October, playgrounds, classrooms, community centres, and the public spaces right across Bangladesh will be awash with activity as the country joins with more than 80 others to celebrate the third annual Global Handwashing Day.
Handwashing with soap is the most effective and inexpensive way to prevent diarrheal and acute respiratory infections, which take the lives of millions of children in developing countries every year. UNICEF is founding member of Global Handwashing Day, and projects like the School Brigades recognize that children have the potential to act as agents of change on this issue, encouraging effective handwashing behavior in their schools, families and communities.