Rani block of Kamrup district had frequent outbreaks of diarrhoea and dysentery due to lack of sanitation and hygiene. But thanks to the support provided by the Sarba Shiksha Abhiyan and UNICEF, students of schools are learning to adopt handwashing.
By Azera Parveen Rahman
KAMRUP, India, 15 October 2012 – The first thing that strikes you as you enter Sajjanpara Primary School in rural Assam -India’s North East- are the neatly lined rows of small, colourful slippers outside the classrooms. Soon, the school breaks into recess and the enveloping quietness bursts into chatter and laughter. In an almost practiced manner, the children then line up to go to the toilet, and then to wash their hands.
For an outsider, this act—of washing your hands after using the toilet, or before eating your meal—may be simple, but for the children and teachers of this school, this crucial step, that has now been inculcated into the school routine, means much more.
“It means that now fewer children are falling ill because of water borne diseases such as diarrhoea or typhoid, which was common in the past. And that translates into better attendance in classes,” Subhan Chandra Boro, the headmaster of the school, says with a smile.
Dominated by the Bodo tribe, Rani block of the Kamrup district of Assam, where the school is located, has a high incidence of diseases such diarrhoea. Due to low awareness levels, sanitation and hygiene have taken a back seat in people’s homes.
According to the World Health Organization, 88 per cent of diarrhoeal cases are caused by unsafe water supply and inadequate sanitation and hygiene.
But thanks to the Child Friendly Schools and Systems (CFSS) initiative by UNICEF in collaboration with the Sarba Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in Assam, a national flagship programme for Education, a wave of change has been initiated in Sajjanpara primary school that has sent ripples in the community.
The CFSS initiative ensures that children have a safe and protective learning environment in schools with community participation as an integral element.
The school is one of the twenty schools in the district which has been selected to demonstrate the CFSS approach in which water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)— crucial components of the Right to Education Act -- are an integral part. The North East Cell of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) has been providing the technical support for the WASH component.
The handwashing initiatives will now receive an added impetus with a directive that has been issued by the office of the Commissioner & Secretary, Elementary Education, Ms. L. S. Changsan, that directs all schools to allocate Mid-day-Meal untied funds for the provision of soap. This will indeed further strengthen the practice of handwashing with soap in schools round the year.
A typical day at the Sajjanpara School, set amidst verdant foothills, begins with the morning prayer. At the end of the prayer, the headmaster speaks to the students on a particular topic related to health and hygiene. As students, dressed smartly in their blue shirts and green skirts or shorts, listen with rapt attention, the lecture sets the mood for the day.
“Today, Sir (headmaster) told us about the importance of washing our hands properly - you know it is all about the correct five steps,” Manisha Boro, a 10-year-old, who is in the 5th grade, explains, as she carefully washes her hands with soap after using the toilet and splashes water on her feet too.
Jeroo Master, Chief, UNICEF Assam Field Office acknowledges this. "School children have the potential to be very effective change agents -- they are able to demonstrate positive practices that they have imbibed at school, thus influencing their families and community to adopt these behaviours," she states.
The girls’ toilet block in itself has been an achievement. Earlier, the school had common toilets for girls and boys. But now, the girls have a separate toilet block, complete with water connectivity, and is maintained well. The common toilet is now exclusively used by the boys.
“I was not very comfortable using the toilet earlier and always used the facility accompanied by a friend, because the boys used to be around,” says Chandana Daimary, another student. “It is a good thing we have our own toilet block now”.
Although small, this centre has a total of 76 students, in equal proportion of girls to boys and four teachers. Sajjanpara has a model school, with a green playground, a tiny but clean kitchen serving mid-day meals, a neat boundary wall of bamboo fencing and plants, contributed by the community, and classrooms with interesting messages written on the walls.
‘Flush the toilet before and after use”, reads one message. ‘Wash hands before and after meals’, ‘Unclean water can cause diarrhoea, typhoid and jaundice’, ‘Keep yourself clean’, read some other messages across the school’s brightly painted yellow and green walls.
As the bell struck for the mid-day meal, the children troop out of their classes and make their way to the kitchen, where the plates are kept. They then queue up to wash the plates, their hands, and then finally settle down to eat the piping hot food that is served.
Manju Rani Boro, who is a helper in the kitchen as well as a member of the Mother’s group, says that the health status of her family has improved tremendously, thanks to her children who study in this school.
“My parents had not taught me the importance of cleanliness, but my children are now making up for that. They tell me what happens when one does not drink boiled water, or does not wash hands before meals. I know now the link between lack of hygiene and illness, and am learning from my children every day,” the proud mother points out.
Septuagenarian Binandi Ram Rabha, a community leader who had helped in the school’s establishment in 1986, said that he couldn’t thank SSA and UNICEF enough for helping the school develop.
“We have always wanted to do something to make the school better, engage community volunteers to do constructive work like repairing, or cleaning the playground. But it is only thanks to the support of such organisations that our school has reached this level,” Rabha says.