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UNICEF child-led WASH programme reaps rewards in India as hygiene-related illnesses fall

© UNICEF India/2011/Crouch
Mahesh Kushawaha, 12, shows off soaps brought from home to use to wash his hands before lunch at Tinsyahi School in Guna District, Madhya Pradesh, India.

By Diana Coulter

GUNA, India, 28 June 2011 – As they dash from class to the school’s canteen for their midday meal, Mahesh Kushawaha, 13, and fellow students stop and fumble in small plastic containers. But it’s not food they seek. It’s soap.

Clean and healthy

Clutching their bars, they march to a corner of the school terrace where two boys in smart blue uniforms stand waiting with water jugs and a ladle. Then, one by one, the children carefully wash their hands. “This is our duty,” says Mahesh, proudly. “We will stay strong and healthy.”

The teen and his friends at the tiny village school of Tinsiyahi are among thousands of students, parents, siblings and neighbours from the state of Madhya Pradesh currently learning how proper handwashing prevents disease.

The handwashing campaign, part of a UNICEF programme called ‘School Saving Lives’, stresses the importance of using soap, not just water, to clean hands before eating or preparing food after using the toilet, changing a baby’s soiled pants and other tasks.

The programme is operating thanks to a unique partnership between UNICEF and the Bharat Boy Scouts and Girl Guides around the state that produces ‘patrol leaders’ or children from among their ranks to run cleanliness campaigns in their schools and communities.

Children lead the way

Until he was asked to be a patrol leader for Tinsiyahi school, Govinder Jauhar, 15, says he would happily plunge his hands into a plateful of snacks without properly washing.

“We would come home from studies or a cricket match after school and just start taking our food without washing,” he says. In the past, he suffered bouts of fever and diarrhoea.

Now he’s avoiding illness and encouraging his family and friends to do the same. “I tell them the importance of handwashing with soap because otherwise the germs are on our hands, get into our mouths and may cause disease,” Govinder explains.

© UNICEF India/2011/Crouch
Students show off their handwashing skills. A UNICEF programme to encourage personal hygiene, hand washing and latrine usage in Madhya Pradesh, India, is reaping rewards in the form of diminishing cases of serious illness associated with poor hygiene.

Govinder has also been instrumental in using his role to encourage another key element of the programme: he convinced his parents to build a toilet in the home shared with 10 family members. But it wasn’t easy.

After a five-day training session that took him and other patrol leaders to Bhopal, the state’s capital city, for the first time, Govinder learned that his village was likely spreading disease by using their fields for toilets.

He asked his father to get bricks, mortar and fixtures to construct an indoor stall. But his father kept delaying construction. Finally, Govinder refused to go to school until they became the first in his village of 45 families to build a toilet. Now, neighbours in Morekhedi village are following their example.

Govinder’s mother, Munnibai, is impressed with the outcome. “It was always a little shameful to go outside to the toilet,” she says, hugging her baby granddaughter, Nidhi. “Now we can be clean and private.”

Inspiring change

Tania Goldner, UNICEF Chief of Madhya Pradesh Field Office, says that it is youths like Govinder who are helping to bring about change in community behaviour.  “First they influence their peers, then family and neighbours, so the change spreads further,” she says.

Back at the village school, teacher and scout patrol leader Sangeeta Gupchup says her students were always keen to adopt the programme, but many adults initially feared school wells couldn’t supply enough water for drinking, let alone handwashing. It was the children who thought of bringing their own bottles of water and soap supplies.

“The parents, teachers, villagers had all been trying to solve this problem, but it was the children who came up with the solution,” says Ms. Gupchup with obvious pride.



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