Today’s children are changing India’s tomorrow | opinion | Hindustan Times
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Today’s children are changing India’s tomorrow

Children have a right to grow up and fulfil their potential. We must focus on convincing adults and children to change a lifetime of habits in order to promote healthier practices being passed down for generations to come.

opinion Updated: Mar 30, 2018 23:34 IST
Students take part in a walkathon as part of the nationwide campaign Swachh Bharat Mission in Dadar.
Students take part in a walkathon as part of the nationwide campaign Swachh Bharat Mission in Dadar.(HT File Photo)

When students in a district of Chattisgarh learned about the sanitation crisis, 1.38 lakh of them wrote letters to their parents to motivate them to build toilets in their homes, and sanitation coverage in the district increased by 25%. When 85,000 students in the capital of Gujarat came together to rank sanitation levels in their schools and made the list public, communities stepped up effort to build toilets. When 13-year-old Lavanya from Karnataka staged a protest to demand a toilet for every house in her village, the Zilla Panchayat fulfilled her demand. When five students from Tata College in Jharkhand returned home and found sanitation lacking in their blocks, they galvanized support for toilet construction and use, and monitored progress so successfully that soon after, some communities had a toilet in each home.

These inspiring young people saw the world differently from the generations before them. They saw the problems that their communities faced, understood what needed to be done, and took action to galvanize communities into becoming open-defecation free.

Significant progress has been made to reduce levels of open defecation in the South Asian region since 1990, and there is still much work to be done.

In 2014, India was home to 90% of the south Asians who practised open defecation and if nothing was done, many of the 26 million children born every year would have grown up in an unhygienic environment.

The problems caused by open defecation are not as well-known as they should be. When people defecate in the open, instead of in safely-managed toilets, human waste contaminates everyone’s water and food. This is not just unpleasant but also potentially deadly. Open defecation means that diseases such as cholera, polio, and hepatitis are spread more easily. It means that children are at a higher risk of diarrhoea, which in turn leads to malnutrition..

Each day, 320 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea in India. That’s one child, one daughter or son, every five minutes. Children who survive grow up to be smaller and weaker than they should be, with lower learning capacity. Those who then make it to school may drop out if their school does not have toilets. This is especially the case for adolescent girls, many of whom will leave school when they start menstruating.

These hurdles must be addressed today because these children will be the artists, scientists, lawyers, farmers and dreamers of tomorrow.

They have a right to grow up and fulfil their potential. The solution to poor sanitation is not a new one. It is not simply enough to build a toilet, we must encourage people to use and maintain them. We must focus on convincing adults and children to change a lifetime of habits in order to promote healthier practices being passed down for generations to come.

The Swachh Bharat Mission launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 2, 2014, is the world’s largest behaviour change initiative of its kind. It truly recognises that poor sanitation is a generational problem, with parents teaching their long-existing behaviour to children. It has gone one step further by directly engaging and harnessing the potential of children and young people to advocate behaviour change.

Young people know that they deserve better. Like the thousands who wrote respectful yet firm letters to their parents in Chhattisgarh, they have the ability to see problems where adults see the status quo, the vision to see solutions where adults see problems, and the energy to get those solutions working, when adults give up.

Unicef is proud to support the Government of India in mobilising children by providing platforms and popularising key sanitation messages and tools in schools. Unicef has helped develop methodologies that successfully ‘trigger’ students and teachers into realising the importance of having access to and using safe sanitation facilities, not just in schools, but also within the homes and communities they return to at the end of each day. As the Swachh Bharat Mission continues to unfold, I look forward to hearing more stories from children like those in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Jharkhand who are leading the fight against poor sanitation, one toilet and one household at a time. With such excellent young leaders, I am confident that the future they are creating will be a healthier and more productive one.

It is our obligation as individuals, communities and governments, to support them and help build a tomorrow in which the sanitation crisis is just a scary story of the past.

(The author is the Unicef Representative in India)