SOLUR, India, 24 July 2016 - The children outside the yellow painted Government Model Primary School in Solur looked at each other across a row of taps. They concentrated, counting out loud, as they rubbed their hands that were coated in soap together. At the count of five, they started rubbing soap between their fingers thoroughly. This hand washing method is part of the five-step process that they have been taught to ensure that their hands are properly clean. The Physical Education Teacher, C.N Chandrasekariah watched as the row of children formed an orderly queue to take their turn at their taps. Chandrasekariah will supervise group hand washing practice every morning for an entire year.
"The children sometimes used to forget to wash their hands, so the school is trying to ensure that it becomes a habit. Now that we have this practice in school, children are healthier. There used to be a lot of absenteeism because of illness, but now not so much anymore," he said.
UNICEF, along with the community, and the implementing partner, Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), helped build the hand washing platforms and trained teachers across 55 schools on how to instil good hygiene habits into their pupils. The efforts were part of a state wide campaign called 'Swacha Shale' to improve water and sanitation facilities, and hygiene habits in schools. Studies have shown that hand washing at critical times such as before eating, and after using the toilet can reduce diarrhoea rates by almost 40 per cent.
"It's easier to ingrain good habits from a young age," said Salathiel Nalli, Water, Sanitation, Hygiene Officer (WASH) at UNICEF. "Four hundred thousand children are dying in India every year due to diarrhoea alone. This can be stopped if we simply teach children to wash their hands before having food, and after using the toilets. Getting children to face each
other to count out loud also makes hand washing more fun, so they actually look forward to the practice."
Although hand washing is part of the culture in India, it is less common for people to use soap. At the school, using soap is compulsory, and pastel coloured soaps are tied between each tap at the hand washing station.
Twelve-year-old Punith Kumar, a smiling boy with large eyes, eagerly explained how he has passed on these habits to his parents.
"Sometimes there is no soap at home, but now I ask my parents for it, so I can also wash my hands properly before eating
and after I go to the toilet," he said. "I've also taught my parents to do the full five steps when they wash their hands."
Education can change behaviour, but facilities are equally important in order for good hygiene to be practiced. The local government has done its part by focusing on building infrastructure like hand washing platforms and toilets, and training teachers, who in turn pass on their new knowledge to parental associations.
"With the help of the UNICEF team, we've been able to target community bodies and introduce the hand washing programme and provide training to teachers," said the District Deputy Director for Public Instruction, Sumangala.
"We've also had workshops for parents and local community bodies."
At the Government Model Primary School, UNICEF has helped construct two new toilets at the school, and renovate the old ones. The simple concrete latrines are painted a cheery blue with smiling stick figures to indicate which are for boys and which are for girls. The students have the responsibility for keeping the toilets clean, and they have elected a student, 13-year-old Vasudha Bidi as School Sanitation Minister. Vasudha, with the help of the other pupils, ensures that the toilets are clean, and that the other children know how to use the toilets properly.
"I enjoy being the Sanitation Minister, sometimes people give me a clap at assembly. When that happens I feel good and proud, and like I've done a good job," she explains earnestly. "I feel like the school is something that I can be proud
of when I see pupils washing their hands."
The simple steps of washing hands and building better hygiene infrastructure in schools can have the dramatic impact of saving one third of children in India from dying of diarrhoea, intestinal worms, respiratory infections, and other diseases that can be avoided by improved hygiene. UNICEF implemented the campaign in 55 schools, and now the Karnataka state government is replicating the programme in 7,000 schools. The state government is also undertaking a massive effort of training 120,000 school cooks on promoting hand washing behaviour among students across the state. As more schools join in the 'Swacha Shale' campaign, child mortality rates will significantly decrease as the practice of basic hygiene spreads.