One of my fondest memories from South Sudan was seeing an enormous queue of children fill a playground at a school in Yambio. Children, some as young as 4 or 5, were lining up to wash their hands before the midday meal. The really young ones were so hungry for lunch they were crying. But no one broke ranks in the queue to wash their hands.
Older children stood by a table with a large container of water, to keep the tap on so younger children could wash their hands before going to the kitchen to receive their meal.
Research shows that children who wash their hands with soap after using the toilet and before eating can reduce the risk of getting diarrhoea by over 40 per cent
It might not seem like much, but for these energetic children who have been running around all day, playing outside and sharing crowded classrooms, the simple act of handwashing with soap before lunch can prevent a lot of illness.
In fact, research shows that children who wash their hands with soap after using the toilet and before eating can reduce the risk of getting diarrhoea by over 40 per cent.
But not all schools have access to soap or water for students and staff to wash their hands. Over one third of schools worldwide and half the schools in the least developed countries have no water and soap for handwashing. For these children, the risk of disease and malnutrition is higher.
For children at the school we visited in Yambio, the daily routine of handwashing before the midday meal will teach them healthy hygiene habits that will last a lifetime. In some cases, these children will pass on this habit to their younger siblings and other children in the community.
A few days later in Juba I met 12-year-old Nyajme washing her hands at a community tap. Nyajme is one of 42,000 people living in Juba’s Protection of Civilians site. She told me that her mother taught her to wash her hands. “It’s important to wash hands before eating,” she says, “to prevent cholera and other diseases”. She told me proudly that when she grows up she wants to be a health professional.
On Global Handwashing Day, I think of Nyajme and the children at school in Yambio, and the very simple acts they are doing to keep themselves and others healthy.
Philippa Lysaght works in advocacy for UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene team.