The idea seems so simple. But, for millions of people across the globe, handwashing with soap and clean water is much easier said than done.
In eastern Zambia, where we work, FHI 360 is improving access to clean water and sanitation facilities and encouraging healthy hygiene behaviors as part of the Schools Promoting Learning Achievement through Sanitation and Hygiene (SPLASH) project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The need is great. According to a baseline survey conducted by SPLASH in 2012, only 28 percent of 564 schools surveyed had any type of handwashing facility. To fulfill this unmet need, SPLASH is creating permanent handwashing stations in four districts of Zambia’s Eastern Province (Chadiza, Chipata, Lundazi and Mambwe). Since 2012, SPLASH has constructed 760 toilets and rehabilitated 128 others, and installed 40 hand pumps with 2,500 litre water tanks at schools in Chipata, Lundazi and Mambwe.
While providing sanitation facilities and clean water is necessary to improving hygiene practices, the communication and adoption of hygiene messages is just as essential. Handwashing with soap at critical times, such as after using a toilet, is one such hygiene practice. Our 2012 baseline study surveyed 225,000 students and found that only 3–6 percent of boys and 1–4 percent of girls washed their hands after using the toilet.
Changing this behavior is complex. Asking the right questions to understand current behaviors and barriers to adopting new ones is key: What are the perceived risks, benefits and barriers to handwashing with soap? What are the cultural norms around handwashing at home? What small, doable actions can schools and communities implement to make handwashing with soap more feasible? What support do schools need? These are just a few of the questions that need to be asked and answered.
Schools keep it simple and fun
This year, many of the schools in the four districts of Eastern Province are planning to celebrate Global Handwashing Day. In preparation for the day, school administrators and students are using simulation exercises that reinforce good hygiene practices. One particularly effective exercise uses charcoal to illustrate how washing hands without soap leaves a residue that can lead to the spread of illness through contact.
On Global Handwashing Day, each school will commemorate the event in its own way. Students will showcase skills for making and using tippy taps — a simple handwashing device easily made from local materials. They will share information on the importance of handwashing with soap and experiment with ways to keep goats and rain away from the soap. They will use poems, drama, song and dance to communicate their messages.
In communities across the four districts, SPLASH is working alongside the Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education to create real behavior change. Students in SPLASH target schools are not only learning best practices for sanitation and hygiene at school; they are also replicating these practices at home and in their communities. Today, as we celebrate Global Handwashing Day, students in eastern Zambia are moving one step closer to turning handwashing with soap into a habit.