By Neha Khattor
GUWAHATI, India, 21 November 2014 - As the clock strikes 12, eight students guided by a teacher come marching out of their classroom towards a 10-feet-long hand washing trough. Maintaining an arms distance from each other, they walk in a synchronized fashion, reach the wash basin and in almost synchronized manner wash their hands.
As they begin to leave, another batch of eight students walks towards the basin to wash their hands in similar way to their peers. Within a span of 15 minutes, all of 52 students enrolled in Rani Lower Primary School, located in the picturesque tribal belt of Kamrup district in Assam, have finished washing their hands and are now sitting patiently in the school corridor in neatly defined rows, waiting for the cook to serve them the mid-day meal. All this while, careful not to touch anything, their hands remain suspended in the air.
At the Rani LP School, the practice of hand washing is followed every day. And for the school headmaster, Suren Chandra Mazumdar, it is a matter of pride that his students keep up this simple yet important practice.
This is a welcome change in the school, where only a few years back children, despite being aware about the benefits of handwashing with soap, did not practice it regularly, either before eating their meals or after going to the toilet.
“It was more to do with lack of adequate facilities at school and social behavior in the community where there is less stress on regularly washing hands,” says Suren Mazumdar. “As a result, there was always a chance, that some of children might get ill an lose out on studies,” adds Mazumdar.
Each year, across the world, one child dies every 30 second from diarrhoea. The simple act of washing hands with soap significantly cut the risk of diarrhoea from 30 percent to 50 percent and that of respiratory tract infection from 21 percent to 45 percent, thus proving to be the most cost-effective way to prevent diseases compared to any single vaccine.
The New Beginning
To overcome the challenge, in 2012, the DHaAL (Daily Hand Washing for an Ailment-Free Life) project, by Axom Sarba Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), UNICEF and the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) piloted the group hand washing initiative in the Rani LP School premises.
Daily supervised group handwashing with soap before mid-day meals session is a life skill-based behaviour change approach, where all students as a group wash their hands with soap at least once a day, before meals. This group activity in school is designed to reinforce the habit of good hygiene behaviour, and uses the positive power of social norms and peer encouragement to strengthen healthy actions.
“The group handwashing sessions are also used as an opportunity for delivering hygiene messages, for example, on the importance of wash hands with soap at two
Group handwashing with soap before the mid-day meal is also an important component of Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya – ‘Clean India: Clean Schools’ campaign.
UNICEF supports the campaign which aims to achieve universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene in schools in India. The campaign has been launched to ensure that every school in India has a set of functioning and well maintained water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
critical times: before eating and after using the toilet. Sanitation and drinking-water safety are other key issues mentioned during this activity,” says Rushabh Hemani, WASH Specialist, Assam Field Office, UNICEF India.
“Adequate time allocation, preferably 10-12 minutes, before the mid-day meal time is given, to ensure that every child and teacher can wash hands with soap, conveniently, adds Rushabh.
“Today all of us completed washing our hands in record time and we are ready to eat our meals,” says 10-year-old Arjit Das, as he along with other children queue up the children for eating the mid-day meal.
Arjit makes sure everyone has washed their hands after they have eaten their food. “All the students in class alternatively share this responsibility and make sure everyone has washed his hands,” adds Arjit.
Positive results of group handwashing with soap have been seen already
Helped by only one assistant teacher, Mazumdar juggles between his roles as a teacher, headmaster and school caretaker. But he has never complained on being handed down the additional duty of taking care that students wash their hands before and after meals and the toilet trips. “It is because it complements my teaching experience,” says Mazumdar.
“The sessions have brought change in communities too. Children now better understand the importance of hygiene which has led to a domino effect that has led to behavioural changes in the kids and the community.
"Though the school enrolment has jumped from 32 in 2012 to 52 this year, it is the message and my teachings that these kids are taking outside the school and into their homes that makes me feel proud as a teacher,” says Mazumdar.
“I tell my mother that she must wash her hands with soap and water after using the toilet, and before eating her food. Otherwise she may fall ill. She listens to me, and in case she forgets to do so, I remind her, and she immediately washes up,” says Arjit’s friend said with a wide grin, proud of the fact that she has been able to teach her family a good practice.
“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,” Dr. Tushar Rane, Chief, UNICEF Assam Field Office.
Following the example of Rani Lower Primary School
Meanwhile, at Bhalla Lower Primary School, it has been only a month since the group hand washing facility has been setup, under the second leg of the project called DHaAL Plus, which covers other three blocks of Assam including 421 schools. The Government of Assam will be scaling the project to all 48000 schools in Assam in phased manner. In the first phase, 10,000 schools will be covered.
“Though dysentery, jaundice and diarrhoea are prevalent in the community here, parents are resisting to adapt the habit of washing their hands with soap. They have never practiced it in their lives and, thus, feel it is an unnecessary expenditure,” says Maheswar Das, the headmaster of Bhalla School, adding that “if kids don’t practice handwashing at home, achieving hygiene becomes challenging.”
“Washing hands is important because it kills germs that cause diseases and also prevents others from catching that disease and falling ill. I have even taught my mother and father and if I catch them eating their food without washing their hands, I scold them,” says old Nayan Das who is also the health minister of the child cabinet..
He adds, mimicking the stern voice, while the headmaster looks on smiling. His smile a reflection of his hope and confidence that one day all the kids and the community in his village would too turnaround and adopt this healthy habit.