Washing hands with soap and water can reduce the chances of contracting respiratory infections by 16% and reduce deaths associated with diarrheal diseases by 50%1. Despite being such a crucial determinant of personal health and wellness, the habit of regular handwashing is followed by a relatively small number of people. A survey by the National Statistics Office (NSO) in 2019 showed that only 35% Indian households practise washing their hands with soap and water before meals.
The secret to stepping up this number lies in creating large-scale awareness about hand washing. It is comparatively difficult to influence adults, who are set in their ways. Our best choice is to work with the most malleable minds of the human race – children. This was the thought that spurred the Road to School (RTS) program team in Odisha, to involve children in celebrating the practice of handwashing. A mixed bag of activities like rallies, street plays and demonstrations were used to engage children in the celebration of handwashing, spreading the word on the importance and need of this habit, in and around Bhubaneshwar.
The RTS program is implemented by Learning Links Foundation, and provides remedial education along with holistic development activities for children studying in government schools. In Odisha, the Road to School initiative is run with support from IndusInd Bank. Along with quality education, the program also promotes life skills and positive practices for good health and well-being among students and their communities.
The RTS campaign for hand hygiene in Bhubaneswar began with appointing the Ambassadors of Change, children in the intervention schools who possessed excellent communication skills. These children actively promoted the need and importance of handwashing among their families, friends and community members. The RTS Ambassadors then partnered with students from Santipalli Basti and Damana to conduct a rally on handwashing. The students in these localities had prepared posters and placards on handwashing. Carrying these, they chanted the slogan in Odia, “Mo Haatha, Safa Haatha,” meaning ‘My Hands, Clean Hands’. The young campaigners walked through the locality and asked everyone to gather at a common spot. Once everyone had gathered, the RTS ambassadors educated the community members on the importance of washing hands, the proper steps of handwashing, and the situations when handwashing is a must. The event ended with all the attendees taking an oath to maintain personal hygiene and wash their hands regularly.
The celebrations also had children of the Dumduma community performing a street play to demonstrate the importance of hand washing to their community members. After the street play, the children distributed awareness leaflets to the people present. Furthermore, a cost-effective and convenient solution for facilitating handwashing in under- resourced areas, the tippy-tap handwashing method, was demonstrated to children and adults in different communities.
Through this initiative, the program reached out to 4,978 people in 116 communities in and around Bhubaneswar. Adults in these communities were astounded by the children’s conviction and belief in this simple exercise to increase personal hygiene. Mr. Khetrabasi Behera, community head of Santipalli Basti, summed up the general mood in these words: “Never before have I seen the kids in our locality take up such initiatives. Through this, it is evident that they are extremely keen to create awareness and bring about change. I am so proud to see them take up this responsibility today!”
Impressed by the children’s efforts, community members wholeheartedly pledged their commitment to washing their hands regularly. After all, no one can refuse when an innocent little child with earnest eyes comes up to you saying, “Mo Haatha, Safa Haatha”.