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Hygiene: Talking About It to Clear the Air

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‘Before, we were using the bush. Now we have latrines for boys and girls, and the headmaster told us how to use them.’ The 12-year-old boy’s candid explanation is a reminder of the lack of hygiene that still prevails in schools in rural and poor areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Like thousands of children, Nasiyani Chiwuye lives in a village where running water and sewers are unheard of. At school, he used to learn about hygiene in the national curriculum: it was limited, theoretical information that he didn’t stand a chance of applying to his daily life.

There are still no running water or sewers in Nasiyani’s Malawian village of Gumulira, but thanks to the Millennium Villages Project’s (MVP) hygiene and sanitation interventions, now he’s able to wash his hands before eating and he understands the benefits of doing so. He uses simple but efficient equipment: an old plastic bottle, some string and a few sticks. All of it, tied together, turns into a foot-activated water tap. The two primary schools in Gumulira, which house more than 500 children, are implementing these approaches.

In Mwandama, the other Malawian MV, similar interventions were rolled out in 2009 under the name PHASE (personal hygiene and sanitation education). This cross cutting project (health, education, and water and sanitation) focuses on teaching children about this important topic and giving them the tools to implement its various aspects at school, and also at home when possible. The international healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline developed and launched PHASE in Kenya in 1998. Since then it has been introduced in a number of countries worldwide, reaching over one million children.

GSK supports PHASE in the Mwandama and Potou (Senegal) Millennium Villages, with funding going to develop educational materials, train teachers and build school sanitation infrastructure. ‘Previously, we relied on the national curriculum. But PHASE is more elaborate. For example, it explains how infections can be transmitted when defecating anywhere,’ says Joseph Green, a teacher at Mwandama’s St. Anthony’s primary school which houses more than 1,300 boys.

Sensitization takes place in the classrooms. ‘What do you see?’ Joseph asks the children while holding up an image for all to look at. Hands are raised, replies are shouted: ‘A boy and girl’, ‘An unhygienic process’. The teacher presses them for a more detailed answer. ‘There’s no toilet, it’s unhealthy,’ replies Charles Ching’anda, 12, describing a drawing of two children walking past dirty, run down latrines. ‘We get diseases and infections if toilets are that dirty,’ adds Mphasto Rafael, 15. ‘Does this image reflect the state of your toilet at home?’ asks again Joseph. ‘No!’ comes the unanimous reply.

At St. Anthony, as in the other schools in Mwandama, boys and girls learn about sanitation and hygiene not only in books in classrooms but also through taking part in clubs and helping with maintaining and cleaning the PHASE infrastructure. PHASE recently completed 12 blocks of new VIP latrines in 6 local schools, easing the shortage of sanitation facilities.

The project reaches nearly 12,000 children in Mwandama.
This extensive outreach has helped in lifting the taboo surrounding the issue, as it was difficult to talk to children about open air defecation and feces on the school’s ground, when there was no alternative.

‘Openness among children has improved, and we are able to discuss hygiene and sanitation related issues freely. Even older children are now able to direct smaller ones,’ says Rodrick Chikwawa, the MVP water and sanitation facilitator in Gumulira.

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