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On a Hand Washing Mission: Young Girls Herald Change in the Community

By Azera Parveen Rahman

KAMPRUP, India, 15 October, 2012 - It’s not just about classroom lessons and rules to be followed in school. Chandana Daimary, a vivacious little girl studying in the fifth grade of the Sajjanpara Primary School of Assam, knows that the simple practice of washing hands with soap, especially before eating her meals and after using the toilet, is the reason why she doesn’t fall ill so often these days. And she goes all out to spread this good practice among her family members and the rest of the community.

Rani block of Kamrup district where Chandana lives is dominated by the Bodo and the Rabha tribes of Assam. The beautiful landscape used to be marred by frequent outbreaks of diarrhoea and dysentery due to lack of sanitation and hygiene. But that is a thing of the past now.

Thanks to the support provided by the Sarba Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), a national flagship Education programme of the Government and UNICEF, with technical support from the North East Cell of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), students of schools such as Sajjanpara primary school, are learning to adopt handwashing and other good hygiene habits as a way of life, and are further bringing change at both the family and community level.

“I tell my mother that she must wash her hands with soap after using the toilet, and before eating her food. Otherwise she may fall ill. She listens to me, and in case she forgets to do so, I remind her, and she immediately washes up,” Chandana says with a wide grin, proud of the fact that she has been able to teach her family a good practice.

“Ever since we adopted this practice, our health has improved. Earlier my family used to have stomach ailments or fever every now and then. Now that we know the importance of washing our hands properly, it has become part of our daily routine, ” she added. The recent directive issued by the office of the Commissioner and Secretary, Elementary Education, Ms. L. S. Changsan, to avail the funds of Mid Day Meals for provision of soaps in schools, will sustain this initiative in schools across the State of Assam.

According to the World Health Organisation, 88 per cent diarrhoeal disease is caused by unsafe water supply and inadequate sanitation and hygiene.

Ten-year-old Nabanita Bodo of the same class is equally enthusiastic of religiously following the ritual of hand washing, as well as ensuring that her large family of 10 members, do the same.

“Our teacher has taught us that if we don’t wash our hands, we will invite germs that cause diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid and jaundice. So I make sure that I follow the five steps of hand washing properly, and have taught my family members too,” Nabanita explains.

“My grandparents are a little slow to learn. They are very old but they listen to me carefully. When they realise that the consequences of not washing hands is so bad, they make that extra effort. At times my grandmother forgets to use soap, so I have to remind her that simply washing with water is not enough. They are very proud of me,” she adds with pride.

The importance of safe drinking water, of “boiling, cooling and then drinking” which they have learnt in school, is another mantra the girls have spelled out to their families.

But the winds of change have not just blown through their immediate families. Both Chandana and Nabanita have been especially vocal about spreading the good health practices in their community as well. Jeroo Master, Chief, UNICEF Assam Field Office acknowledges this. "School children have the potential to be very effective change agents -- they are able to demonstrate positive practices that they have imbibed at school, thus influencing their families and community to adopt these behaviours," she says.

“My father has five brothers and they all live with their own families. I have informed them about the importance of being clean and washing hands. Although I tell others in the neighbourhood too, it’s easier to influence my family,” Chandana observes. “In any case I feel very happy that I have been able to teach so many elders of my family. They all listen to me, and sometimes say they feel amazed that I know so much,” she adds with a smile.

“Our neighbours also listen to me,” Nabanita says. “They say that if I have learnt about such things in school, then it must be correct. Also, when they see that we don’t fall ill as often as before, they understand what the reason is”.

The girls are also aware of the ill effects of open defecation.“Open defecation is an unhealthy habit. It attracts flies, which spreads germs and leads to many diseases,” Nabanita says.

Chandana shares that although her home now has a toilet, it was not there before. “Earlier we used to go out, in the forest to relieve ourselves. But now we have a toilet. It’s much more healthy, plus easier and safer for us to use,” she says.

Shouldering the responsibility of their families and the community on their tiny shoulders, the girls now have an even bigger dream.

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up, so that I can treat the ill and the diseased. I know what the good practices of living a healthy life are and how important hand washing is…so I already feel like a doctor!” Chandana says, as Nabanita giggles nearby. 

“My grandparents think I am almost as good as a doctor,” Nabanita smiles. “But I would like to study hard and become a real one someday,” she concludes.

 

 
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