Global Handwashing Day –how UNICEF Cambodia is supporting hand hygiene for all in schools
Even as we marked Global Handwashing Day, UNICEF was managing a major operation to bring hygiene supplies and safety education materials to all 13,482 schools and 3,064 community pre-schools in Cambodia. These are essential for their safe re-opening.
Kampot, 30 September - At 7am, Tak Hab, Education Director for Kampot Province, was already at his department’s headquarters, lifting boxes. It wasn’t his typical job, but it wasn’t a typical morning - it was the day UNICEF delivered several tons of hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfection supplies to enable all 700 schools in his province to re-open safely following long closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the latest stage in a major operation UNICEF is running to bring hygiene supplies and safety education materials to all 13,482 schools and 3,064 community pre-schools in Cambodia, supported by a campaign to educate and inform the public on how children can return safely.
Mr Hab’s department headquarters had been converted into a warehouse for the day, with handwashing facilities, soap, cleaning products, and learning materials arranged in enormous piles for each school. Education department staff, UNICEF employees, teachers, and volunteers bustled around organising. “I’m not here for symbolic reasons or to show my authority,” Mr Hab smiled while taking a quick break. “I want to help on a practical level, because this is so important. I heard of teachers and parents fundraising to buy soap and other cleaning products because they knew it was the only way to re-open. These supplies from UNICEF will be a huge relief for them.”
Today is Global Handwashing Day, and while the simple act of washing hands with soap came under the spotlight in 2020 as one the best defenses against COVID-19, it has long been known to be crucial in preventing many diseases. Researchers estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths would be prevented every year, with diarrhoea-associated deaths reduced by up to 50% and respiratory diseases reduced by 16%. Global evidence has shown how such measures lead to improved health and nutrition, which is essential to the growth and development of children.
“It’s not just about COVID-19,” says Cherm Bunny, a teacher at Krang Snay school in Kampot province. “Practicing good handwashing helps children protect themselves from so many illnesses. But it’s true that COVID-19 has made a lot of people focus on its importance more. I’ve seen many changes. Some kids are coming into school with their own alcohol gel. That would never have happened before!”
In order for good handwashing and hygiene to be practiced in all homes and schools in Cambodia there are many challenges to be overcome, including limited infrastructure, availability of water and soap at convenient locations. According to data from the UNICEF and WHO Joint Monitoring Programme for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), poor rural households are the most disadvantaged when it comes to hygiene: 43% do not have a handwashing facility with soap and water on their premises. Similarly, 53% of rural schools do not have a handwashing facility with soap and water.
Handwashing has long been a pillar of UNICEF’s work supporting the Royal Government of Cambodia to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Long before the words COVID-19 had even been heard, the Government set a national target that: 'Every person in rural communities has sustained access to safe water supply and sanitation services and lives in a hygienic environment by 2025'.
COVID-19 has made meeting this target more urgent, and UNICEF has ramped up its work accordingly. As well as informing the Cambodian public about the benefits of handwashing and developing WASH services across the country, it has led the way on the procurement and distribution of key hygiene supplies in schools, funded by the European Union other partners in the multi-donor Capacity Development Partnership Fund (CDPF), and in pre-schools, funded by the People’s Republic of China.
Hong Mansou, 12, was especially happy to see new handwashing facilities installed. He is a serious student with a long-standing ambition to become a doctor. He also lives with a grandmother who has a long-term sickness, so he has even more reasons to be cautious during the pandemic. “I am really careful,” he explains. “I try to avoid crowded places and I make sure I always wash my hands for more than 40 seconds. That will be easier now.”
When procuring hygiene supplies, particular attention was paid to the needs of younger children, who often find it more difficult to understand and follow instructions, and who benefit from anything which can make handwashing fun. Accordingly, UNICEF procured 7,000 Happy Taps for preschoolers. These bright, visually appealing, and ergonomic handwashing stations make the process easy for the young by including soap and water in a single portable unit. They proved an instant hit in the Kampot pre-school we visited, with students rushing to take turns in washing their hands.
Three-year old Sopheaktra was one. “I really like the Happy Tap. But actually, I know all about washing my hands,” he explained proudly, while waiting for his father to collect him. “My parents showed me how to do it properly and I know it’s very important. Not just for me but for other kids in my class.”
“It’s true,” smiled his father, Seak Chanthouch, arriving a few minutes later. “Not long ago he would never have washed hands if we didn’t make him. Now he does it by himself, every time he comes back home from playing. It’s really sunk in and I think that’s a good habit for life.”