Remarks by UNICEF South Africa Representative, Christine Muhigana on Global Handwashing Day

Phamehlo Primary School, Sebokeng, Gauteng - 15 October 2020

15 October 2020

SEBOKENG, 15 October 2020 - "UNICEF very much appreciates the opportunity to be part of this year’s Global Handwashing Day here at your school.

There has never been any doubt of the importance of handwashing with soap in preventing disease and keeping people healthy. For young children, handwashing is the first line of defence against diarrhoea and other preventable diseases that we all know can be very deadly. This simple act can save many lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again reminded us of the basic measures we need to take to prevent and to slow the spread of viruses. Never before have we had such urgency around promoting good hand hygiene. Sustaining this will have long lasting health benefits for everyone during and beyond COVID-19.

Global Handwashing Day provides an opportunity to maintain this momentum and the timing could not have been more opportune. As COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have eased and people move around more, one strategy to help prevent any potential resurgence of the virus is handwashing.

There are two key conditions that need to be in place for hand hygiene to be as effective a virus prevention measure as possible.

The first is that regular handwashing needs to be a behaviour that is engrained into our DNA. That’s why the H is for Handwashing initiative is so innovative and exciting. I’m delighted today to join Unilever and the Lifebuoy brand, the Department of Basic Education and the Publishers’ Association of South Africa to sign the declaration of intent – to adopt H for Handwashing. There can be no better way for a young child to learn the letter H, than to also learn about the benefits of regular handwashing.

 This is an important initiative for every child to grow up with the knowledge needed to practice good hand hygiene. Behaviour change work is much easier – when one needs not change behaviour – because handwashing is already learnt.

Building a culture of handwashing must go hand-in-hand with access to facilities that make the practice of good hand hygiene possible, easy and a regular activity. Far too many children, families and individuals do not practice regular handwashing because it’s simply not possible – they lack access to these basic facilities.

The second condition to improve hand hygiene for all and our challenge is to improve children’s access to these essentials, so that our messaging is reinforced with the ability to put behaviour change into practice.  

The evidence is clear, we know that:

40 per cent of the world’s population do not have a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. In South Africa, more than 8 million people use a communal or a neighbour’s tap.

43 per cent of schools globally lack handwashing facilities, affecting some 818 million school-age children. In South Africa, around 3,500 schools were reported to have water supply challenges in 2018.

We recognize the work by the Department of Basic Education and partners to tackle this issue. The Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative has made great strides in improving sanitation and handwashing facilities in schools.  The partnership struck with the Department of Water and Sanitation following the COVID-19 outbreak also helped to quickly scale up the availability of water facilities in schools and communities.

UNICEF is pleased to be a partner in supporting this drive.  Our emergency water, sanitation and hygiene response is focussed not only on behaviour change but on improving access to handwashing facilities in vulnerable and at-risk locations. 

With the generous support of Woolworths, UNICEF has worked with our longstanding partner, MIET Africa, to construct a handwashing station in this very school, as one of 36 new facilities in schools.

This support also enabled us to importantly link handwashing with the school nutrition programme. A new training manual on safe food handling was produced that targets the volunteer food handlers and includes training to put the guide into practice. It is our hope to extend this programme to all schools in the country.  

Unilever, another long-standing partner of the DBE, have also provided generous support, along with the United Kingdom and USAID to expand our reach in installing handwashing facilities in schools across eight provinces. 

I would like to extend our thanks to Unilever, Woolworths, the United Kingdom, USAID and other partners who have generously contributed to UNICEF South Africa’s WASH response.

South Africa’s Department of Basic Education has led the way in Africa and globally by safely reopening schools so children could return to where they should be – in class, with their friends and in a safe school environment.

Improving hand hygiene practices and access to handwashing facilities has been and continues to be a critical component in the return to school – to help protect every child, every teacher – and every person – from COVID-19 and other diseases.

Thank you very much again and let us move on from here knowing that H is for Handwashing, now and always."

Media contacts

Sudeshan Reddy
Communication Specialist
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 82 561 3970


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in over 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special efforts on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children everywhere.

Working with a range of partners, UNICEF has had a presence in South Africa since the end of apartheid and continues to work towards bettering the lives of all children in the country.

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