Rohingya children become hygiene promotion ambassadors during COVID-19 response in Cox’s Bazar

Children learn the connection between handwashing and germs through stories, songs and laughter

Karen Reidy
Rohingya child Asmida
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Himu
28 July 2020

“Nur Anna, a 12-year-old girl decides to cook kola toil curry (a local dish with green vegetables), for her family. After failing to wash her hands before preparing the food, her entire family falls ill,” says Bandana Rani Das, Hygiene Promoter with UNICEF partner CARE.  

“What could she have done to avoid this misfortune?” asks Bandana to a handful of Rohingya children during a handwashing awareness session.

The children clamoured to respond. Their answers spark a wider conversation around handwashing and germs.

“We are teaching through real-life scenarios, by playing games and using drama to deliver important lessons on health and hygiene in a way that children will understand. It’s called ‘learning through laughter’. When children enjoy learning, they are far more likely to remember lessons and adopt good hygiene practices,” says Maksuda Sultana, Technical Manager for Hygiene Promotion with UNICEF partner CARE.

“They are also incredibly good communicators. That’s why it’s important we help them become leaders and champions in their community,” adds Maksuda.

Mohammad Zian (12) in the Rohingya refugee camps, Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Reidy
Mohammad Zian, 12, participates in a learning through laughter handwashing awareness session in the Rohingya refugee camps, Cox’s Bazar.

Children leading the way

UNICEF recognizes the potential of children when it comes to handwashing behaviour change. In Cox’s Bazar, UNICEF designed an innovative programme to “Make WASH Fun” for children, placing them at the centre of COVID-19 hygiene promotion response efforts.

Mohammad Zian is an excellent leader. He is one of 1,603 resource children (779 girls and 824 boys), UNICEF partners teach to share key knowledge on handwashing and hygiene with family, friends and the community in the Rohingya refugee camps.

Each child leader shares key messages with 10 other people leading to increased awareness and self-monitoring of hygiene promotion by the community.

Mohammad’s enthusiasm shines through when his teacher asks him a question about how to prevent COVID-19. He replies with a confidence that belies his 12 years. 

“We have to do three important things to prevent coronavirus. We have to wash and rub our hands with soap frequently for 20 seconds, every time. I am showing you 1, 2, 3…,” he says as he demonstrates the correct handwashing technique and counts all the twenty.

“Second, we have to cover our face while sneezing or you have to use a tissue. If you have no tissue, you have to wash your hands.”

“And third, we have to keep at least three feet distance from each other like I am showing you now,” he says as he stretches out his arms to show the minimum distance needed.

Children from every block come here to learn, we have a chance to make friends, our teachers really like us and we feel good here,” says Mohammad Zian.  

“Poor handwashing practices and acute watery diarrhoea among young children were a constant feature of life in the refugee camps,” says Silvia Ramos, UNICEF Hygiene Promotion Specialist, Cox’s Bazar.

“We needed a sustainable and systematic approach to help children adopt handwashing as a regular practice,” adds Silvia.

Children practice handwashing techniques in the Rohingya refugee camps, Cox’s Bazar.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Himu
Children practice handwashing techniques in the Rohingya refugee camps, Cox’s Bazar.

Laying the foundations

Over the past year, UNICEF partners have been working to teach best handwashing practices, encourage behavior change and empower the community to become leaders and advocates on handwashing, especially children.

“We have laid important groundwork over the past year for handwashing behaviour change which is now more critical than ever with the arrival of COVID-19,” shares Silvia.

COVID-19 presents a formidable challenge in the crowded refugee camps, home to 860,000 refugees, half of whom are children. On an average, there are 40,000 refugees living per square kilometre, posing heightened risks for disease outbreaks.

Shared water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, such as communal latrines, bathing cubicles and water pumps adds to the complexities and challenges.

“Handwashing with soap is one of our best defenses against COVID-19. We are expanding our hygiene promotion activities and increasing handwashing stations throughout the camps.” says Silvia.

“Although good hygiene by itself can’t defeat COVID-19, it gives us a fighting chance against the disease. We now see greater awareness and improved infrastructure to support handwashing practices. We are proud of our youngest ambassadors who are advocating for positive behavior change in their communities,” Silvia adds.

UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the Government of Japan, the European Union, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United States Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) for their generous contributions towards UNICEF's hygiene promotion work in Cox's Bazar.