Like all other children, 11-year-old Gayatri Kachari loves playing. And if play involves water, she loves it even more.
For many children at Sajjanpara Lower Primary School in Assam’s Kamrup district, the three minutes spent washing their hands as a group before their mid-day meal is the highlight of the day. The children cheerfully sing the “Hand Washing song” as they scrub their hands under running water and splash each other for before reluctantly abandoning their place for the next in line.
The hand washing is part of the UNICEF- Ministry of Human Resource Development Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programme to encourage group hand washing in schools to promote hygiene and bring down infections such as the common cold, diarrhoea, influenza, and pneumonia, among others. These common childhood infections are the leading cause of school absenteeism and malnutrition among children.
And the results are showing. At Sajjanpara Lower Primary School, the attendance rate went up by 14% within a year of the WASH programme being implemented, from 80% in 2012 -13 to 94% in 2013-14. In a village of roughly 150 families, the increase is substantial.
“Over the past two years, instances of diarrhoea, chickenpox and other infectious diseases have come down significantly. The one disease that remains is malaria,” said Suban Chandra Boro, principal of the Sajjanpapa Lower Primary School.
The impact of the sanitation drive is not limited to schools alone. “Villagers here have now adopted the practice and there is a community demand for more toilets and hand-washing facilities,” adds Boro.
Students and teachers confirm this. “I have taught my mother as well as my older brother how to wash hands properly. If they slip, I am always there to remind them to wash their hands before a meal or after using the toilet,” said Meghna, a class 3 student.
A similar hand washing initiative called ‘Help A Child Reach 5’ by FMCG giant Unilever reduced diarrhoea in children under 12 years from 36% to 5% in Thesgora village in Madhya Pradesh, a village known for having one of the highest rates in India of this deadly yet preventable disease.
A reduction in diarrhoea also improves children’s nutritional status. “Though children were being fed, worm infestation and diarrhoea would ensure the children got no nutrition at all,” said state project engineer for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Bhagaban Dev Choudhury. UNICEF is now promoting the campaign intensively in 200 schools in Assam and more than 8,000 schools nationwide. A crucial aspect that has helped to make the programme a success is the mothers’ group or the matri gut, which is a group comprising mothers of the students. Group members discuss school activities with teachers and the principal and two oversee the cooking of the mid-day meal and also taste it.
The success of the programme in Sajjanpara has prompted demands from various other blocks for similar interventions. Jayanti Rabha, an executive councillor in the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council that has 779 villages under it, wants to start the programme in her area.
Washing hands before eating, in fact, is part of the government’s directives for the mid-day meal scheme, but compliance is poor. In schools where hand washing is a long standing practice, such as the Dahali Lower Primary School the attendance rates after the implementation of the programme have not changed much.
The school, however, has registered an increase in the enrolment since word got out that they were part of the WASH programme.