Friday, March 21, 2014

Water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for the health of our children

Students from MaloMalo Primary School practicing hand washing.
© UNICEF Pacific/2013
Charlie (Description of a real boy but not his real name) doesn’t care much about washing his hands. In fact, he never thinks about it because he has no water supply, no soap, and no knowledge about its importance in preventing disease. He is a ten year old Solomon Islander going to a school that has no toilets or water.

Almost every day a Solomon Islander dies from a water, sanitation and hygiene related illness: Results from a recent survey show that 1 out of every 5 children under the age of five have had a skin or eye infection in the previous two weeks due to poor hygiene practices and lack of access to safe, clean water and a toilet.

Parents, schools and governments in the Pacific share a common interest in quality education particularly on water, sanitation and hygiene practices for our children. New data from the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation reveal that our children’s health and education are at a high risk through unsafe drinking water and substandard sanitation facilities in both homes and schools.

World Water Day on 22nd March is an opportunity to ask whether our schools are providing a healthy learning environment for our children.

Sanitation coverage in the Pacific has shown only limited improvement since 1990 and open defecation is still widely practised in Kiribati (37%) and the Solomon Islands (18%). The Pacific region as a whole is off track to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target on sanitation.

The related health risks of unsafe water and poor sanitation include nutritional deficiencies, diarrhoea, worm infestations, respiratory infections, skin and eye infections. These preventable conditions and diseases can lead to poor attendance or attention at school, hindering their ability to learn and develop. Furthermore, lack of adequate water and toilets at schools de-motivate teachers and children from regular attendance. Female teachers and adolescent girls in particular need safe, private facilities.

UNICEF is working with parents, schools, governments and development partners through its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programme, aiming to provide all schools with safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities along with hygiene education. The Programme focuses on the design and implementation of sustainable, safe water access points and toilets, development of hygiene education and the responsible involvement of parents, students, teachers, headmasters and headmistresses and their communities and governments.

 Primary School Students Celebrating Global Handwashing Day  ©UNICEF Pacific/2013
Hygiene education and behaviour change are just as important as the “hardware” (toilets and water) and cannot be taken for granted. While some people believe, “Build it and they will come”, the reality is quite different. There are numerous examples of nice facilities that have not been properly maintained and have fallen into an unsanitary, unusable state.

Furthermore, regular hand-washing with soap is the only way to prevent many diseases – just splashing with water will not work!  Good hygiene and sanitary practices taught and re-enforced by teachers and peers at school will often have a ripple effect at home, and will lay the foundation for a lifetime of good practices. When children grow and become parents, they pass on these good practices to their children.

The Three Star Approach is an initiatives to help schools and communities support water, sanitation and hygiene in schools. In the Three Star Approach, schools are guided to take simple steps to make sure that all students wash their hands with soap, have access to clean drinking water, and are provided with clean, gender-segregated and child-friendly toilets at school every day.

 The Approach is very participatory and includes group activities that help children to build good hygiene habits that last a lifetime.  By prioritizing the most essential actions for achieving water, sanitation and hygiene goals, the Three Star Approach helps schools focus on key, affordable interventions. At the same time, it provides a clear pathway for all schools to meet national standards, and for all children to have hygiene-promoting and healthy schools.

The Three Star Approach is being tried at schools in Fiji. The aim is that at least 95% of all children attending the participating schools will wash their hands with soap and water, minimum twice a day, before eating at recess and lunch in schools, 5 days a week. Private sector partners are encouraged to contribute in various ways:  An example is the recent partnership by Fiji Airways, the Ministry of Education and UNICEF, where waer and toilet facilities at the Lautoka Primary School and Ratu Saimoni Memorial in Fiji were improved; and at the same time hygiene education and practices are taught and supervised.

Please get involved! Think about what you can do to promote and sustain clean water, clean toilets and good hygiene practices in the home and at schools. These three things will lead to healthier children and also a better learning environment in which children can achieve more.

The author
Karen Allen is UNICEF Representative for the Pacific Islands

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