Catching them young
The bell has been sounded for lunch at a primary school in a remote part of Gujarat and within seconds there is pandemonium all around. Children by the dozens are pouring out of their classrooms, laughing and shouting, clearly enjoying the break from lessons.
But amidst all the rush they seem to be heading somewhere with an apparently focused zeal. When asked, a group of them shout in chorus that they are going to wash their hands before eating. Under ordinary circumstances, this would not attract much attention. But here in the Mandvi block of the state’s Kutch district, the children’s enthusiasm is a sign of recent improvements in hygiene practices, the result of a programme by the State Education Department, supported by UNICEF.
The area where the school is situated is one amongst many in the state that was badly hit by the massive earthquake of 2001. The quake razed the old school building to the ground.
UNICEF not only constructed a new pre-fabricated primary school, with 11 classrooms, but also made provisions for drinking water, separate toilets for boys and girls and a fenced playground. As part of its objective to improve the quality of the learning environment, UNICEF, in partnership with the Education Department, also initiated a health and hygiene programme.
Its primary focus has been to acquaint all students with better hygiene practices both in terms of sanitation and drinking water safety. The programme has shown positive results.
Rani, a girl student of class five at the primary school explains with a sigh of relief that she and her friends no longer need to run home to use the toilet now that there is one at school. This, she says, is a great change from earlier days, when she used to find it hard to concentrate on studies or even play freely because of needing to use a toilet but not being able to do so until she got home.
Other students have benefited similarly. The programme has been implemented primarily through the setting up of health and hygiene committees consisting of students supervised by the school’s eight teachers. Committee members have been trained in elementary aspects of sanitation, including the clean use of toilets, the need to wash hands before eating, and handling drinking water safely.
Health and hygiene
The committee members are in turn responsible for training the rest of the school – numbering over 300 students – in health and hygiene. For members of the committees, the day begins early with duties to sweep the school’s open ground and classrooms clean.
Tushar, an active member of what students call the H&H (or health and hygiene) committee, says the reason the programme has been so effective is because all the school’s children are involved in every part of implementation.
The entire student population is roped in to help keep the school clean. During school time, each class is allotted five minutes every hour to use the drinking water facility and toilets to help prevent crowding.
The head teacher, Jagdish Bhai is a happy man. He says the programme has been successful because teachers and students have been equally committed and equally involved in making it work. He also says that the programme has shown how effective children are in helping bring about behavioural change.
The fifth standard student, Rani, has not only been practising better hygiene herself but has also been an instrument of change – she now ensures that her mother always washes her hands before cooking meals and has also been teaching other children in the neighbourhood what she has learnt at school.
Ramesh, another student of class V proudly displays how he dispenses drinking water safely from water containers to fellow students and juniors at school. "I do not let anyone touch this water. My teacher has told me that water can become dirty easily and we can fall sick if care is not taken"The teacher in charge of hygiene committees, Mr Parikh, says that to ensure clean drinking water, two children from the senior classes have been given the responsibility of ladling water from steel containers in which water is stored.
In a water-scarce region, this ensures not only that the water is stored safely but also that it is not wasted. Children have also been provided steel tumblers for drinking. Older children direct younger children on how the glass has to be held to prevent contamination of water.
Child Environment Corners have been set up in the school to help reinforce messages on personal hygiene. This includes plastic models of various options for low-cost home toilets, flip charts on seven principles of hygiene education, and a chloroscope; these are used as tools for training the students and Village Education Committee (VEC) members.
Soap, nail-cutters and mirror are kept here, and children are encouraged to frequent the corner during the lunch break or at the end of the day.
The health and hygiene programme is seen to have not only helped improve the overall hygiene and sanitation standards of children inside and outside school but also helped indirectly retain, through the provision of toilets on the premises, girl students, in school.
A successful rural sanitation programme, supported by UNICEF, in West Bengal has become a global model for developing countries. Starting in 1991, the project has demonstrated that remarkable improvements can be made in household toilet coverage through a decentralised system that is dedicated to serve the poor and managed by the local government with NGO support. Over one million toilets were built in 2003 alone, and household toilet use has increased from 12 per cent in 1991 to an estimated 50 per cent in 2003.