Improving access to water and sanitation in rural Punjab
UNICEF and the United Kingdom’s FCDO empower girls to bring about positive change in their community
JHANG, Punjab, Pakistan – 11 August 2022: “When a WASH club was formed in our school in 2018, I was the first student to become a member!” 17-year-old Nida Mumtaz proudly tells.
“At first, my friends were annoyed when I told them to wash their hands,” the girl says. “They would argue that their hands were already clean. Some would even run away if they saw me coming! Little did they know that the world would soon rely on handwashing to save lives during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Nida recently graduated from the Government Girls High School in Samandoana, a small village located in Jhang District, in Pakistan’s northeastern Punjab province. The school is one of more than 1,500 which have benefitted from the Accelerated Sanitation & Water for All (ASWA II) project in the district launched by UNICEF, with funding from the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.
ASWA II aims to provide families living in the most vulnerable rural communities with access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
As part of the project, a WASH club was created in each school to help students learn about safe water handling and adequate sanitation and hygiene practices, with support from UNICEF’s partner Lodharan Pilot Project. Menstrual hygiene awareness-raising sessions are organized regularly for girls and the schools have received menstrual hygiene management kits. So far, 60 schools have been equipped with infrastructure such as handwashing stations, safe drinking water sources and functional toilets in the district.
One of the greatest achievements of WASH clubs is their contribution in the fight to reduce the number of people practising open defecation.
“No one in our neighbourhood used to have a toilet at home,” recalls Nida.
As the school’s WASH ambassador, Nida was trained and tasked with encouraging students to adopt hygienic practices such as washing their hands with soap at critical times, conserving water and protecting the environment, and using latrines rather than practice open defecation.
The WASH Club supervised the construction of the first functional toilet in her school. Under the supervision of the school principal and a teacher, it continues to hold regular meetings to raise awareness on the best WASH practices among the nearly 600 students, who in turn share what they have learned with their families at home. This includes sessions on Menstrual Hygiene Management. Moreover, club members monitor students’ hygiene and check the cleanliness of the school.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the WASH club became responsible for ensuring students’ and staff’s strict adherence to key preventive behaviours, in a bid to reduce virus transmission.
Nida’s father, Mumtaz Hussain, worked in a factory in the metropolis of Karachi, some 1,000 kilometers away. He used to visit his family whenever he got time off his work. During one of his visits, Nida convinced him to have a toilet constructed in their house – the first in the neighbourhood.
Nida’s mother supported her efforts by making sure that all family members drink boiled water instead of tap water, which is often unclean and contaminated. Nida’s family example inspired other community members to follow suit. One by one, each of them built a toilet in their house, and people started taking hygiene seriously.
“At first, some neighbours would laugh at me and say that I was a fool to do whatever my teenage daughter told me to do,” Mumtaz says.
“Little by little, our neighbours realised the importance of hygiene and came to see us, seeking guidance to build latrines in their own houses. They became conscious not only about their own hygiene, but about keeping the streets in the neighborhood clean, for instance by refraining from throwing garbage in the open,” Mumtaz adds.
Nida recently graduated from high school and was admitted to a college in Multan, the main city in southern Punjab. She has remained close to her high school principal and continues to lead WASH awareness-raising sessions for the students when she is in her village.
“Creating a WASH club at the school was an opportunity to bring about positive behavioural change for the students, and in the community,” Ms. Farrukh Tehseen, the School Principal, tells. “What is remarkable is that it also empowered young girls from the school to become agents of change in their community. And when they become mothers, they will also train future generations!”
Maleeha Sajjad, UNICEF WASH Officer in Punjab, says that the project has helped bring about significant positive change in hygiene behaviours among the province’s most vulnerable communities, especially students. It has also helped curb down the spread of diseases born from poor sanitation and reduce COVID-19 transmission.