Good Hygiene Practices begin at school

Good Hygiene Practices begin at school

05 August 2019
UNICEF Laos/2019/Bart Verweij
Children washing their hands as part of the daily Hygiene Actions Led by Pupils in Schools HAPiS programme at Doub Primary in Saravane.

It may not seem like the most obvious starting place for tackling a problem that can have a devastating effect on the health of children, impair their ability to learn and even lead to early death. But worldwide, improving children’s knowledge of sanitation and hygiene has repeatedly been shown to not only improve their health and school attendance but also improve the health of their parents and the wider community.

Ms. Hsonejai Xayasone, a primary teacher at Doub primary school, is one of 50 teachers across 50 schools in Saravane province that received training in effective teaching-learning, classroom management and hygiene promotion practices. After a morning class of dance and traditional songs she ushers her students out to the group handwashing station just a few steps from the classroom. Smiling, as the class WASH monitor turns on the taps, she says: “They have fun and get to chat, you can see that they are scrubbing away so they can talk a bit longer.” Through having fun, the children have picked up the hygiene habit quickly. “It’s become automatic now. Students, as soon as there’s a break, go off to wash their hands thinking ‘Oh, this is washing time’”.

UNICEF Laos/2019/Bart Verweij
Mr. Sisamay Yankhampoun the school principal and Ms. Hsonejai Xayasone with Nam age 10. She is one of the student leaders of HAPiS.

The Lao Expenditure and Consumption Survey 2015 classifies Saravane as Lao’s poorest province. It is here that Ms Hsonejai’s teaches a class largely comprising a mixture of ethnic groups and Lao Lum, many of whom have never had access to basic information on proper sanitation and hygiene practices before. The new WASH behaviours introduced to Doub primary are simple and practical. Students take part in group handwashing with soap and water before the school meal and are responsible for cleaning toilet facilities. ”It really only took one day for the students to understand it was important now they follow the hygiene steps. They even do this at home.”

Doub Primary’s rural status has seen it selected as one of over 50 primary schools where UNICEF, with support from the Australian Government, introduced their Hygiene Actions Led by Pupils in Schools (HAPiS) package. As well as supporting school hygiene promotion, like the group handwashing and proper use of the toilet facilities, UNICEF provides and promotes clean drinking water by installing water filters and the installation of hand pumps or electric pumps to access the water.

UNICEF Laos/2019/Barth Verweij
11-year-old Poun drinking filtered water in her classroom at Doub primary school

Despite improving infrastructure, Hygiene Actions Led by Pupils in Schools (HAPiS) recognises that the key to changing behaviour will always be the idea of students taking point, whilst monitored by Hsonejai. “Children lead the hygiene themselves. We selected two students to teach the other children and monitor them,” she explains. “Once a week the student leader has to show the others step-by-step how to wash and use the toilet hygienically. This means the students are always reminded how to keep the toilet clean and how to clean themselves properly.” Such student-led activities see the children taking ownership of their hygiene behaviours and, most importantly, this makes it all the more probable that they will continue this good behaviour and sustain it into adulthood.

As has been seen in other countries, triggering hygiene activities at school level and improving children’s knowledge and practice of positive WASH behaviours for better health, nutrition and education spreads beyond school. Children are going back to their parents and when mealtime comes around they are running off to wash their hands. Bemused parents then ask their children what they are doing and quickly get their own lesson in hygiene. Hsonejai has heard the stories from her class. “About thirty percent of the children have come to me and said that they have shown their parents how to clean their hands properly.” And the message is spreading. When the school sanitation facilities need repairs, or their new kitchen garden needs building parents and the Village Development Committee get involved.  “The whole community pitched in to help, bringing wood, nails or whatever they could so we could build a kitchen garden and repair the toilets.”

UNICEF Laos/2019/Bart Verweij
As part of Hygiene Actions led by Pupils in Schools (HAPiS) Toh is cleaning one of the toilets at his school.

According to the Lao Social Indicator Survey (LSIS II), only two in five households practice regular handwashing with soap, and 10 per cent still report cases of diarrhoea, making changes to hygiene behaviour essential for a healthy childhood. With this in mind and with the success of HAPiS programmes like this one in Doub Primary, UNICEF, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Sports, and the support of the Hong Kong Committee for UNICEF, are introducing a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) component to five more schools in Saravane as part of their continuing commitment to taking a more holistic approach to children’s education in 2019.

Whilst it may be hard for a primary teacher to estimate just how sustainable new hygiene and sanitation behaviours will be over the course of a student’s lifetime, from what she has seen both at school and in the community, Hsonejai is certain that it is making a difference. “I’m sure a lot of these children will carry on looking after themselves and their families when they are adults.”

UNICEF Laos/2019/Bart Verweij
Hygiene education starts in pre-primary school as part of daily activities to build good habits in early years.