The practice of hand washing is simple, so simple it sometimes goes unnoticed. Maybe it’s because it has rarely crosses people’s minds that our hands can serve as a reservoir for numerous microorganisms. They can be transmitted by direct contact with contaminated skin or objects, and through surfaces from contaminated environments, promoting the spread of parasitic infections or worms, nutritional deficiencies and diarrhea. This situation is worsened in settings with poor basic sanitation.
On October 15, we celebrate the Global Handwashing Day with water and soap. More than a date to reinforce advocacy messages about its practice, it is a day to call people to become more concerned with hygiene practices and basic sanitation in general.
Although handwashing is a high-impact measure proven in many countries, its effectiveness depends on factors such as access to safe water, adequate sewage systems and other components linked to basic sanitation, which reiterates the importance of awareness of the benefits of the practice in order to create the conditions for its effectiveness.
In general, when living in an environment without adequate sanitation and hygiene – a situation too common in developing countries – children are impacted the most. For instance, data released by the global publication Raising Even More Clean Hands, confirms that for all children under 14, more than 20% of deaths and more than 20% of years lost to illness or disability, are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation or hygiene. A very important first step to reverse this situation is to improve sanitation and hygiene in schools.
A study conducted by UNICEF Angola on water and sanitation in 600 schools concluded that although most schools have handwashing stations, only about 31% were adequate as most of them are not functional. In addition, the percentage of stations available is far too low in relation to the number of students at schools. A change in this scenario can be an important factor to increase school attendance and learning, as it would help to reduce health problems associated with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Beyond the creation of adequate handwashing conditions at schools, it’s important to promote the practice within communities and families, as it is recommended that the practice be consistent at home, especially during key moments such as after using the toilet, before eating, and after changing diapers.
The most recent data on the practice in Angola comes from the 2008-2009 Integrated Inquiry into People’s Well-Being (IBEP). According to the report, handwashing is not yet a widespread practice in the country, particularly in rural areas. At the time of the report, only 36% of the general population indicated they washed their hands after defecation. This is magnified by the fact that about 40% of Angolan population does not have access to adequate sanitation, according to data from the 2014 Census.
Taking into consideration situations such as the one above, the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing defined the theme “Make handwashing a habit!” for the day’s celebrations. The theme emphasizes the importance of handwashing as consistent behavior to encourage it in the long term. Promoting handwashing among children can be a way to guarantee that the practice reaches entire communities, as it’s been shown that children are agents of change, and education towards good hygiene practices in schools creates a link between students, teachers, families and communities.
In Angola, the efforts have already been developed by the Child-Friendly Schools project (in collaboration with the Ministry of Education) in which teachers, students and communities are empowered to advance healthy and clean school conditions. The Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) project, includes the Ministry of Environment with support from UNICEF, and encourages communities to become free from outdoor defecation, through the construction of bathrooms or latrines with access to water and soap.
In the celebration of another Global Handwashing Day, it is important to remember that the simple act of washing our hands with water and soap keeps children safe and ready to learn, saves lives, and helps to combat malnutrition, even as it improves the health and well-being of the community. That is to say, one hand washes the other and, when both are clean, it guarantees a better health.
Heitor Lourenço is a Communication Officer at UNICEF Angola