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Handwashing: Helping make children healthy

UNICEF South Africa/2017/Reddy
© UNICEF South Africa/2017/Reddy
Learners at Shishila Primary School washing their hands at the hand-washing station on their school grounds in KwaNyamazama in Mpumalanga province

14 September 2017 - “Washing hands time” announces Isaac Mazibuko, the Principal of Sishila Primary School, outside Nelspruit in eastern South Africa.

His call is met, within seconds, by a long and orderly queue of learners outside a modest brick structure on the school grounds. It is this structure that houses a 3-meter long pipe, with 17 nozzles, and it is under its tin roof where little hands are washed and teeth are brushed prior to their daily meal provided by the National School Nutrition Programme.

With funding secured by UNICEF from the global Kimberly Clark Corporation, a water station was built, and soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes provided, in partnership with the Mpumalanga Department of Education and the non-governmental organisation MIET Africa on the school grounds. With capacity to provide water to up to 17 children simultaneously, the hand-washing and tooth-brushing exercise is a key part of the daily routine of the children, most of whom are from economically-deprived households where clean running water, soap and toothbrushes are a luxury. This will go a long way in reducing school absenteeism due to diarrhoea and respiratory infections – two of the biggest killers amongst school-going children.

Based on a system used by UNICEF in Zambia, the water taps are relatively inexpensive (costing around R3000 to install) and durable, and play a critical role in promoting health and hygiene at schools in under-resourced communities. Located a two hour drive from South Africa’s iconic Kruger National Park, Sishila Primary now has handwashing and oral hygiene as part of the daily routine of its learners who diligently and meticulously clean their hands and brush their teeth at ‘hand-washing time.’ Through this exercise, and the slow drip of water children are also reminded of the value of water and the need to preserve it.

The process of hand-washing is itself a learned practice and a social behaviour and children are taught in groups by their teachers on ‘how’ to actually wash their hands – from their wrists to their fingertips. Those that do not do so properly, or are too rushed, are gently reminded by their teachers to, in the words of Principal Mazibuko, “wash properly as you have been taught” and they politely oblige. The teachers are in turn trained on how to teach hand-washing through appointed Learner Support Agents who are funded through a UNICEF-administered grant from Kimberly Clark.

The sound of nature’s greatest gift, namely water, accompanied by the laughter of healthy, happy children is a tangible example of this positive partnership in action. By making hand-washing and oral hygiene a practical part of the school day, UNICEF, the Mpumalanga Department of Education, Kimberly Clark and MIET Africa is making hygiene and sanitation a reality for children because meaningful, sustainable behaviour change begins with them.



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