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Imams play crucial role in hygiene awareness

© UNICEF/2011/Shamsuddin Ahmed
Imam Jehedi talks to people about proper hygiene practices during Friday prayers at the Khwaza Ghareeb-e-Newaj Masjid in Rangamati.
By Shamsuddin Ahmed

Rangunia, Chittagong, 13 July 2011: In the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southern Bangladesh, people travel long distances to go to mosques, which like manyestablishments, are few in the region. The KhwazaGhareeb-e Newaj Masjid is located at the far end of a valley that stretches between the hills of the Rangamati district and the slopes of a tea garden of in the Rangunia sub-district of Chittagong.

A creek running from the hills meandered through the lash green meadow of Bharangchhari village and we had to take off our shoes to cross the crystal clear water. As we crossed the river the coarse sand at its bed felt ticklish under the feet and the cool water of the creek was clean like crystal and the sky reflected on it.

Imam Jehadi is the Khatib of the mosque – the one who gives weekly sermons. In February he attended a UNICEF-supported national conference in Dhaka on the ways in which imams (or religious leaders) can help spread key development messages to their communities. The conference – a similar one of which was held in January 2010 - brought together more than 5,000 imams from across Bangladesh and, for the second year in a row, was addressed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. 

As the megaphones blared with the sound of the Azaan, the Islamic Call to Prayer, the villagers began to trickle into the mosque readying themselves for upcoming prayers by washing their hands and feet carefully in specialised wash areas.

Across Bangladesh, hygiene is a key issue and awareness of proper hygiene practices can be low, particularly in rural and isolated areas like the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In order to raise awareness of proper hygiene practices, UNICEF, in partnership with the Government of Bangladesh elicited the help of the country’s religious leaders to start encourage their community members to regularly wash their hands, starting in the mosques…and the message appears to be getting through.

© UNICEF/2011/Ahsan Khan
Proper handwashing with soap helps remove germs and prevents many diseases.

The difference between this mosque in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and many others around the country is that this one provided devotees with soap. Cakes were not only available at each wash station but were being regularly used by the worshippers, some of whom were even washing their feet with soap. The provision of soap in mosques is something that UNICEF believes the first step towards achieving a higher level of hygiene awareness, which will reduce the spread of disease.

“One Friday after Imam Jehadi returned from Dhaka, he raised the issue of the great benefit of using soap during ablution,” says NurulSafa, a local madrasah (Islamic school) student, who had had just finished ablution with soap.

“[Imam Jehadi] said that if we should wash hands with soap several times a day because soap prevented  infectious diseases like diarrhoea, pneumonia, measles, TB, typhoid, jaundice, flu and many other diseases from afflicting us. This would keep our families free from diseases. He instructed us to use soap during ablution. That makes it five times a day - in fact fifteen times a day - as we wash both hands three times during every ablution,” he says.

In addition to the conference in Dhaka, Imam Jehadihad also taken part in anotherUNICEF-supported workshop held in Rangamati in December 2010 in which 150 Imams from various mosques of 10 sub-districts attended. The workshop was about how proper hygiene practices help build community resilience against the spread of diseases such as acute diarrhea and avian and pandemic influenza.

“It was not an easy task to have the local people adopt the habit of using soap during ablution,” says Imam Jehadi. “We wash our body, clothes and utensils with soap, but don’t use it in ablution. We are habituated to washing our hands with plain water during ablution. It took me a lot of pain to explain to devotees the good effect of hand washing with soap on our health. Finally, I could motivate the mosque committee and the local community to introduce soap at the ablution corner. Now most people use soap during ablution,” he says.

Jehadialso explained how he convinced the community to donate soap to the mosque.“I told them that soap should be contributed by the devotees, not be bought by the mosque committee. If the community members contributedsoap then they would own and make proper use of it. It had been a very hard task. But the people listened to my suggestions. They wash hands with soap not only at mosques but also at home,” Zehadi added.



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