The gift of water
Celebrating Global Handwashing Day in schools in Tajikistan
Global Handwashing Day has been celebrated every October 15th since 2008. To mark the day, governments and NGOs take action to increase access to water and soap and encourage proper hand hygiene worldwide. This year, the tagline, #HandHygieneforAll, calls for all of society to achieve universal hand hygiene.
October 15th is Global Handwashing Day, and amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of handwashing has never been greater. The experts’ advice is clear: besides staying at home, the single most important protective measure we can take to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 is to wash our hands regularly and properly with soap. On account of the message’s importance, we see and hear it all the time, everywhere we go.
The inhabitants of places like Vakhsh district in Khatlon Region of Tajikistan, are no exception. Yet, while hand washing’s importance may be simple and clear, the message often has to go unheeded due to the absence of WASH which persists in the area. This is despite the fact that proper hand hygiene reduces the number of acute respiratory infections by 20%, the chance of contracting COVID-19 by 36%, and the risk of developing diarrhea by a staggering 40%.
The nation’s schools put the community at particular risk. Of the 4,000 schools in Tajikistan, only half have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Under these conditions, managing and navigating the pandemic in educational facilities is a far more risky task for students and staff members alike. For the children attending schools in these contexts the risks of contagion have always been very high - with 110,000 cases of acute intestinal infection afflicting children in Tajikistan every year.
In time for Global Handwashing Day and to offset risks involved with students returning to school amid the coronavirus pandemic, UNICEF Tajikistan has been working alongside the Ministry of Education and Science (MoES) and other partners to provide WASH equipment, supplies, and learning materials for education facilities around the country.
This day marks the completion of construction and rehabilitation of WASH infrastructure in 45 schools across the country with UNICEF support. In addition, in order to promote handwashing and hygiene, a nation-wide school-based communication campaign has been implemented since school reopening in August 17, targeting teachers, students and parents with key messages on safety behaviors. Posters and communication materials were developed and distributed to a total of 662 kindergartens, 1,771 ECD centres, and 3,884 schools covering all 68 districts and population centres around the country.
Khaticha Zulfalieva is a second grade teacher in Vakhsh District. During the extended holiday period, as part of this project, her school underwent repairs and is now equipped with working public toilets and wash basins which have liquid soap and disposable hand towels.
“Before, we had a dilapidated dirty toilet in the yard. This was a huge issue, because access to water, sanitation and hygiene is always important, especially now,” Mrs Zulfalieva says.
“Since the completion of the repairs, handwashing has become enjoyable and fun for children. They now wash their hands all the time, and as teachers we hope that this will become a habit which they will retain throughout their lives.”
“Our students were washing their hands at school before the outbreak, but now, under our guidance, they do it more often. We have got them into the habit of washing their hands two to three times a day while on school premises. Children are very active and curious - they want to touch everything, which is why handwashing is such an important preventative measure.”
Back in class (or in the playground), Shukrona, a third grade student, talks about how her perspective has changed since returning to school.
“When this disease made it into Tajikistan, we started to change our hygiene habits. We stopped leaving home without masks, and we started washing our hands with soap three to four times a day. We made antiseptic and started following the one metre social distancing rule. We have also stopped shaking hands - now we just say "salaam" and continue walking.
UNICEF’s WASH programme in Tajikistan focuses on systems strengthening, advocacy, policy and strategy review, on supporting service providers for continuous and affordable WASH service delivery, on improving water and sanitation facilities in schools and in health care facilities and on promoting improved hygiene-related behaviour practice. The programme contributes to building an effective Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) system in the country, including COVID-19 crisis response, and on building a strategic partnership with key governmental partners such as the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Health and Social Protection and the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources. As the result of current program activities UNICEF and the MoES constructed and rehabilitated WASH infrastructure in 45 schools in 19 districts across the country, providing more than 42,000 children (20,422 of whom are girls and 235 are children with disabilities) with access to water, sanitation and basic handwashing facilities.