Water for Every Child

'Little engineers and doctors' of Punjab work for improved sanitation and hygiene at schools

Fatima Shahryar
Rizwana washes her hands
UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Fatima Shahryar
10 March 2020

Jhang, Punjab, Pakistan - 10 March 2020: “We used to know nothing about even the most basic handwashing until recently our teachers taught us about it,” says 11-year-old Rizwana, a student of Government Girls Primary School in Shorkot, located in the Jhang district of Pakistan’s Punjab.

“It was a new experience for us, learning the steps and the importance of handwashing. We learned group handwashing and heard about how our hands are carrying a lot of germs all the time, causing us and others to be sick most of the days. With time, we have learned to be mindful and to remind others of keeping clean, cutting our nails, keeping the toilets clean and ensuring that our hands are washed properly with soap.”

"Back in the day, we too did not have a toilet in our house and would wash our hands only occasionally, like our neighbours. We never really felt the need to,"

Rizwana

Until recently, Rizwana’s family was among 14 million people who continue to defecate in the open of Punjab. The lack of access to adequate sanitation, safe drinking water and hygiene facilities in Pakistan’s most populous province  puts children at risk of getting water-borne diseases or of becoming stunted.

“My father is a farmer and my mother is a housewife. Back in the day, we too did not have a toilet in our house and would wash our hands only occasionally, like our neighbours. We never really felt the need to,” Rizwana recalls.

In 2018, to ensure that every child has access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, no matter where they live, UNICEF initiated a program to support Punjabi authorities to build toilets and install handwashing stations across all public schools in the province. The initiative helped transform the hygiene culture at schools and in communities, as trained teachers helped children learn and share hygienic practices with their friends and families.

Students were organized into WASH clubs and trained on hygiene promotion. Some were assigned roles such as WASH Ambassadors, Little Doctors and Little Engineers to observe and guide other students at school and children in their communities.

“When I first told my parents and siblings about the newly-built toilets at our school and on the importance of washing hands with soap regularly, they were very happy to hear about it,” Rizwana says. “My father bought us a soap from a nearby shop. My siblings and I were the first ones amongst our family and friends to adopt hygiene practices at home too. We have come a long way. Now it has become the norm for all our family and friends.”

Rizwana and Mafia smile
UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Fatima Shahryar
Rizwana (11) and Mafia (13) share a laugh before demonstrating handwashing with soap at the newly installed water unit at their school.

One of the WASH club member who Rizwana trained, 13-year-old Mafia, has become a Little Engineer; she is now responsible for ensuring that the facilities remain clean and functional.

“Initially the students would not even use the toilets. Girls were used to going with friends or relatives in the open to defecate, so they were scared to go alone in a small cubicle and to lock the door. They had never done this before. Our teacher suggested that each student who goes ask a friend to come with her and stand outside. This worked well,” Mafia says.

Implementing a new concept can be challenging for children, especially with limited resources.  The teachers who lead the activities have made sure they support and acknowledge and the students for their small acts of cleanliness.

Children laugh at their school
UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Fatima Shahryar
Children of Government Girls school, Tehsil Shorkot, District Jhang smile as they celebrate handwashing with soap at their school.

“Some of the children have now toilets at their homes. Going there has become routine, so they have overcome the fear of doing it at school,” Mafia tells. “Every child who uses the toilet automatically walks to the handwashing counter afterwards, where a platform has been installed so that short children can reach the taps.  It’s an equal opportunity for all.”

UNICEF with support from United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) has helped more than 10,000 families so far, to build toilets at their homes.  The project has also benefited nearly 500 schools, mobilizing 2,000 teachers and about 100,000 students. More will be reached in 2020.