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Children Lead the Way Forward for Health and Hygiene in Assam

By Meital Rusdia

The bamboo fences are aligned just right, as one enters the village to reach the Medhi Para Lower Primary School.  The fences and the carefully protected trees are just two minor details representative of an overall pride in tidiness in this village of 65 families, in which 100% of households have and use toilets.  This village school in Kamput district was the first one to receive the benefits of a district-wide School Sanitation and Health (SSHE) initiative that started in 1999 and was co-sponsored by the Government of Assam and UNICEF.  Since the program began, 748 schools in the district have completed the program and 1154 schools are currently in their final stages. 

The school is in an almost idyllic setting, with brightly lit windows overlooking a small fishing pond; rows of slippers lined up neatly in a row in front of the classrooms; an airy breeze and a sprawling green lawn for playing in the front.  The village retains its traditions and thereby its charm, with numerous cottage industries underway in peoples homes. Weaving and rice husking are but a few.  Next door to the school, the community hall even has typical Assamese drums to summon villagers for community meetings.

But drums aren’t all that speaks loudly in this village.  The children greet their visitors in two formed lines holding red placards with Assamese script informing guests of important water and sanitation messages.  “You can get your toilet at a low cost.  It is scientific and it prevents diseases!” one sign said, which was held by Nilakhi Das in the 3rd grade.  Another sign said, “Do keep your household surroundings clean!” 

There are 53 students, ages 6 to 9, in the school.  The girls and boys wear blue skirts and shorts, respectively, with knit sweaters to keep them warm from the morning chill.  On weekends, the children take part in a procession around the town holding their placards up high in order to inform the adults of all that they have learned in school about basic sanitation and hygiene.  In addition to the procession, 9 of the students perform a skit.  One girl, dressed in hand woven red and white Assamese silk traditional dress, starts off the performance with the lovely Bihu dance.  She has a bright red bindi on her forehead to match her cherry red lips.  After catching everyone’s attention with her dancing talents, the real show begins.  One after another 7 students rattle off the 7 basic hygiene messages that the school, supported by a UNICEF program, has taught them.

Some of the messages are: wash hands with soap and water before eating and after defication, use a toilet daily, clean up garbage, practice safe water handling, take baths, cut nails, etc.  The ninth child in the group then gives an admirable summary of all that was said demonstrating both an in depth knowledge of the issues and just what a wonderful memory she has!  

In addition to UNICEF and the Government of Assam, other supporters have taken a great interest in what these kids are learning.  They are the School Management Committee (SMC), the Headmaster Mr. Chandra Dhar Das, the mothers group, and even the president of the community.  

First the school is given the facilities: a urinal for boys, a urinal for girls, a common latrine, and a water pump, which the students and community members are required to maintain and care for themselves.  In fact, before constructing the block, the community must ensure that it will be surrounded by a fence with neat gardens and most importantly, used properly and kept clean.

The next step that UNICEF and the Government of Assam provides is the knowledge of hygiene and sanitation that the kids so diligently acted out in their skit.  With this knowledge secured, the school itself is used as a platform to bring awareness of these essential and lifesaving SSHE practices to the entire community.

Kan Kan Guswami, 9 years old, & Sangita Guswami, 8 years old, were two of the performers.  When Kan Kan was asked what he has learned he repeated a long list, even including the need to eat his vegetables, wear slippers outdoors and not to spit in public.  Sangita also mentioned that fruits should be washed properly and/or peeled and that a dustbin should be used for collecting garbage.

The response to the skits has been overwhelming.  In the school, attendance rates are vastly improving as is retention of students.  Outside of the classroom, the village is proudly open-defication free.  And the students continue to perform to eager crowds every Saturday, sometimes even traveling to other schools and villages with their powerful messages. 

 

 

 

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