By Diana Coulter
GUNA, India 15 October 2011 - As they dash from class for the school’s mid-day meal, Mahesh Kushawaha, 13, and fellow students peer into plastic cases and fumble with other small containers. But it’s not food that they seek. It’s soap.
Clutching their bars, they march to a corner of the school terrace where two boys in smart blue uniforms stand waiting with water jugs and a ladle. Then, one by one, the children carefully wash their hands.
“This is our duty,” explains a proud Mahesh. “We will stay strong and healthy.”
The teen and his friends at the tiny village school of Tinsiyahi are among thousands of students, parents, siblings and neighbours from Madhya Pradesh currently learning how proper handwashing prevents disease.
The handwashing campaign, part of a UNICEF programme called ‘School Saving Lives’, stresses the importance of using soap, not just water, to clean hands before eating or preparing food, after using the toilet, changing a baby’s soiled pants and other tasks.
The programme is operating, in part, thanks to a unique partnership between UNICEF and the Bharat Scout and Guides troops around the state that produces ‘patrol leaders’ or children from among their ranks to run cleanliness campaigns in their schools and communities.
Encouraging good hygiene
Until he was asked to be a patrol leader for Tinsiyahi school, Govinder Jauhar, 15, says he would happily plunge his hands into a plateful of snacks without properly washing.
“We would come home from studies or a cricket match after school and just start taking our food without washing,” recalls Govinder. In the past, he suffered bouts of fever and diarrhoea.
Now, he’s avoiding illness and encouraging his family and friends to do the same. “I tell them the importance of handwashing with soap because otherwise the germs are on our hands, get into our mouths and may cause disease,” he explains with clear conviction.
Govinder has also been instrumental in encouraging another key element of the programme. He convinced his parents to build a toilet in the home shared with 10 family members. But it wasn’t easy.
After a five-day training session that took him and other patrol leaders to Bhopal, the state’s capital city, for the first time, Govinder learned that his village was likely spreading disease by using their fields for toilets.
He asked his father to get bricks, mortar and fixtures to construct an indoor stall. But his father kept delaying construction. Finally, Govinder refused to go to school until they became the first in his village of 45 families to build a toilet. Now, neighbours in Morekhedi village are following their example.
Govinder’s mother, Munnibai, is impressed with the outcome. “It was always a little shameful to go outside to the toilet,” she says, hugging her baby granddaughter, Nidhi. “Now we can be clean and private.”
Changing community behaviour
Bhagwan Lal Sharma, a UNICEF consultant who helped pioneer the ‘School Saving Lives’ programme, points out it is youths like Govinder who are changing community behaviour throughout the state.
“First they influence the entire student population. Then they start to do it at home and the neighbours see this and change spreads further,” says Sharma. “The process of change has started. It will take some time but it’s beginning.”
The programme also has students involved in a dastak or door-knocking campaign with pamphlets that encourage proper hygiene and emphasize the importance of using oral rehydration salts and zinc tablets if someone falls ill with diarrhoea.
Back at the village school, teacher and scout patrol leader, Sangeeta Gupchup says her students were always keen to adopt the programme but many adults initially feared school wells couldn’t supply enough water for drinking, let alone handwashing. It was the children who thought of bringing their own bottles of water and soap supplies.
“The parents, teachers, villagers had all been trying to solve this problem, but it was the children who came up with the solution,” says Gupchup with obvious pride.
Turning back to her students who quietly wait to eat their mid-day meals, the group chants one final prayer. “All should be happy. All should be free from diseases.”