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Niger: Celebrating Global Handwashing Day in the Heartland

© UNICEF/Niger/2008/Souna
Children demonstrate handwashing with soap in the village of Saran Maradi, Niger

Saran Maradi, Niger, 15 October 2008 – The school of Saran Maradi (600 km east of Niamey) had probably never hosted such a crowd.

More than 500 people, among them children, Government and regional officials, highly respected traditional chiefs of Gobir and Katsina provinces, and many anonymous villagers attended the launching ceremony of the first international handwashing day, enjoying some two-hour community conversation and entertainment on this simple live-saving hygiene rule.

For this first worldwide handwashing celebration, UNICEF Niger and its Government partners have chosen to take the event to the heartland, where hygiene and sanitation behaviour change is crucial. Moreover the choice of Saran Maradi’s primary school is by itself a symbol.

Here, there are exceptionally more young girls than boys attending classes. In a country where only one in two girls goes to school, children, especially girls, will be the change agents promoting live-saving practices like handwashing that could have overtime cascading good impacts in their community. Children also elected a school government. Here a gender balanced team including a prime minister, a minister for young girls schooling promotion and a minister of hygiene and sanitation, are to be found, among other positions. The body is designed to encourage grass roots initiatives and positive behaviours such as handwashing with soap.

During the ceremony, young girls and boys from Saran Maradi’s primary school performed handwashing. They used many of the basic “edu-tainment” tools available to get the public attention nationwide. Indeed, in front of TV crews, several radio channels and popular local newspapers, they first made a salesman type demonstration of the eight steps for proper handwashing with soap. They then sang a song dedicated to cleaned hands and its benefits against diseases, and acted to the point of making the audience guffaw on the issue of handwashing by featuring two households with opposed hygiene standards.

In this launching ceremony UNICEF teamed up with its conventional Government partners of public health, education and water departments, also with the World Health Organization, and the private company UNILEVER. The goal is to involve in the campaign as many partners as possible.

For UNICEF’s Representative in Niger Mr. Akhil Iyer, handwashing with soap is a cost-effective way to dramatically cut back under-five high death rates related to diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses, and attributable to hygiene deficit. To get to this, it is essential, said Mr. Iyer, to work with children who are more opened to behavior change. 

The political support for handwashing is very promising, given that the Minister of Homeland Management and Community Development, Ms. Saadé Souley along with the Ministry of Water Management, Mr. Tassiou Aminou, made the trip to the village of Saran Maradi. The later put the emphasis on “the need to put water and sanitation at the heart of the advocacy campaign, if the country wants to reach on time the public health aspects of the Millennium Development Goals”, in his inaugural speech of this handwashing day.

In the end, Saran Maradi’s children invited the minister of Water Management to practice handwashing with soap, taking advantage of the media presence.  Mr. Aminou brilliantly passed the test of proper handwashing.

In a span of two hours, this remote village may have been the starting point, in Niger, of the rolling back of two of the deadliest diseases hitting hard the under five. By promoting handwashing, the single most cost-effective sanitary intervention, diarrhea and respiratory infections can be reduced to a harmless level.

by Seydou Amadou Oumarou



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