Throughout the outlying area of Beira City in central Mozambique, young people are transforming dank and dirty schools into healthy, inviting places of learning. Children as young as seven are the messengers, educating their peers, their families and their communities about the importance of safe water, good hygiene and private, separate sanitation facilities.
In this peri-urban area there are 54 schools, serving 34,000 pupils. Because of classroom shortages, children go to school in shifts — normally from 6:30a.m. until 10:30a.m., 10:30a.m. until 1:30p.m. and 1:30p.m. until 5:30p.m. This schedule has left children with idle time without teacher supervision.
In 2000, a UNICEF study found that 80 per cent of all primary schools here had no toilets for boys or girls, and no hand-washing facilities. Few schools promoted hygiene and those that did focused on teacher lectures with no student participation. To rectify this situation, UNICEF supported the construction of latrines for boys, girls and teachers, and hand-washing facilities for hygiene practice. But the most potent tools in improving the school and community environment were the children themselves.
UNICEF initially trained 17- to 24-year-olds as facilitators to bring the message about children’s role in improving their school and community to primary school students. Child-to-child sanitation clubs sprang up in 15 primary schools with about 18,000 students.
"The benefits of child-to-child sanitation clubs combined with latrine construction and hand-washing facilities have exceeded all expectations."
These clubs promoted hygiene practices and healthy school environments. The young people pushed for central refuse collection spots so that they no longer had to share their play spaces with garbage. Through theatre, song, dance and games, the children warned of the dangers of unhygienic environments, especially for children. They emphasized how proper disposal of syringes and other medical material would help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Irene Luisa da Costa Tivane, a 10-year-old child-to-child club member, is certain that she is making a difference.
“Participating in hygiene promotional activities is fighting diarrhoeal diseases,” says Irene. “That is why everybody should drink chlorinated water and know how to use a latrine.”
Flávo Varela de Araújo, 14, is an active member of a child-to-child radio programme that supports the school sanitation clubs. He boasts about the transformation within the classroom walls.
“With the creation of the club the school environment is changing,” said Flávo. “And the students’ behaviour is changing too. We will continue supporting safe practices.”
These after-school clubs are instruments of learning for the adults in the community as well. The students’ exemplary behaviour is catching on.
“The process of adopting safer practices is slow,” says Flávo. “But we see positive steps in our communities as they implement our recommendations and advice.”
The parents are listening to their children and are practising hygienic behaviour at home. After witnessing the benefits of good hygiene and the necessary enabling environments, the adults have begun pressing local authorities to provide better hygiene education and services in all schools.
The success of the initial programmes has encouraged inter-school discussion in which teachers share with pride the accomplishments of their schools. Encouraged by the cost-effectiveness of these programmes, three other municipalities have begun fund-raising so they too can bring this participatory methodology to their schools.
UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education to see how this can be replicated in other communities. In its national reform of the curriculum, Mozambique has committed 20 per cent of the school term to reflect local issues. UNICEF is pressing for hygiene promotion activities to be part of that 20 per cent.
"For a relatively small investment in child-to-child clubs, the dividends have been great."
The benefits of child-to-child sanitation clubs combined with latrine construction and hand-washing facilities have exceeded all expectations. Not only have these initiatives provided safer, healthier learning environments, they have also encouraged girls’ education. Whereas older girls used to drop out of school for lack of privacy, they are now remaining in school to complete their basic schooling. The improved hygienic conditions have given girls back their books and their dignity.
For a relatively small investment in child-to-child clubs, the dividends have been great: healthy schools and communities, more girls remaining in schools and leadership skills for the next generation.