BY DURBA GHOSH
They may be young in age but lower primary school children in Assam have donned the mantle of torchbearers in handwashing to herald clean, hygienic and disease free school environment in their respective communities.
School begins an hour earlier for eight-year old Karishma Kalita, of Pub Mazarigan LP School in Kamrup district, as she along with members of the child cabinet check whether the water tank is filled, the hand washing area is cleaned and soaps are in their proper places so that their daily ritual of hand washing is not affected during the day. As children and teachers gather for the morning assembly, it is also her duty, along with another cabinet member, to check whether children have taken their bath, cleaned their nails and teeth and brought handkerchiefs to school.
The highlight of the cleanliness project of the school is group hand washing with soaps by the children before their midday meals and also after going to the toilet. The children of this school along with those in hundred other schools have assumed a role model status not only within the confines of the campus but also in their family and extended community to spread the message of proper hygiene which can be attained to a considerable extent by hand washing, ultimately leading to a disease-free society and less absenteeism in schools.
These children are a part of a pilot project of the Asom Sarba Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) Mission titled ‘Daily Handwashing for an Ailment free Life’ (DHaAL) being implemented in three blocks of Kamrup district by the North Eastern Regional Cell of Centre for Environment Education (CEE North East) with technical and financial support from UNICEF.
A UNICEF report points out that there is consistent evidence that hand washing with soap at critical times – including before eating or preparing food and after using the toilet, can reduce diarrhoeal risk by about 45 per cent. Diseases such as diarrhoea, intestinal worms and respiratory infections lead to school absenteeism, increased drop-out rates and impact children’s physical and cognitive development as well as their education, the report added.
To strengthen the practice of handwashing with soap before the Mid-Day Meal, from July 2013; SSA, UNICEF and CEE jointly piloted a Group Handwashing with Soap (DHaAL) initiative in 100 schools of Rani and Rampur Blocks of Kamrup District in Assam, said Tahseen Alam, Communication Officer, UNICEF Assam. The DHaAL project also developed a proper monitoring and maintenance system of group hand washing facilities, CEE North East’s Programme CoordinatorSimanta Kalita said.
Following the success of the DHaAL model, the 11th State Level WASH in School Task Force recommended scaling up the project to include all schools in the three blocks. Phase two of the project was launched to cover all 421 schools in these three blocks.
The project, which ultimately covered more than 15,000 schools across Assam, is aimed to create a disease-free environment in elementary schools through strengthening SSAs WASH Cell, facilitating roll-out of Nirmal Vidyalaya Puraskar in Assam and developing WASH model schools, Kalita said. “It also includes training key stakeholders, augmenting WASH facilities and setting up operation and maintenance system for group handwashing,” he added.
Besides influencing the children, the project has involved teachers, School Management Committees (SMCs) and the Mothers’ Groups to promote healthy hygienic practices not only in school but also in their respective homes and the community at large.
“We have learnt the five basic rules of handwashing in schools and found our parents did not follow the method. We have taught them how hands should be washed and now they, too, follow the same method,” Namita Biswas, a class three student of Keotpara LP School in Azara said.
The Keotpara area is inhabited mostly by members of the fishing community who earn their livelihood from the wetland Deepor Beel and water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery and jaundice was common among them.
“Since the introduction of handwashing in schools of this area, water-borne diseases have come down drastically and consequently absenteeism in schools has also gone down,” says Debendra Das, now a senior citizen, and among the first students of the Keotpara school.
School headmaster Kamal Goswami has taken up the project of ‘Swacha Vidyalaya’ or Clean Schools as a mission and besides setting up separate clean toilets for boys and girls and handwashing facilities, has also involved students to set up a kitchen garden within the school campus.Goswami pointed out that the school management committee, a nearby temple committee and the villagers, particularly the mothers, have played a pivotal role in ensuring a clean environment in and around the school. ”We have learnt a lot about hygiene from our children which our parents and schools during our childhood failed to teach us. We are learning something new everyday from our children and now that we have realised how necessary it is for our hygiene, these practices have become a part of our daily routine,” Arati Das, mother of nine-year old Sumi Das said.
The impact of the hand-washing initiative is evident from the example of the Mothers’ Group of Baruajani Bapuji LP School who have taken the decision to donate a piece of soap for handwashing on their child’s birthday.Other schools in the nearby villages are also following the example with Haberikura LP School already implementing it.
The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development had in February, 2013 urged all state governments to institutionalize handwashing with soap before midday meals in all schools and allocate adequate time before meals to ensure that every child can wash hands. Prior to this in 2012, Assam government’s Elementary Education Department had issued a directive to all schools to organise dedicated time for handwashing with soap to ensure that handwashing with soap before eating and after defecation becomes a routine practice in all schools of the state.
As a part of the project, several initiatives have been taken to make the practice of handwashing a fun-related activity among the children.The project has so far trained more than 1600 teachers, 2,000 SMC members, more than 4,000 Mothers’ Group members and oriented 20,000 students on WASH issues, with special focus on handwashing with soap.
“The success of the project and children’s interest depends to a large extent upon the headmaster and headmistress of the school. In schools where they have taken a proactive role, children have adopted and spread the message within their family and community with enthusiasm,” he added.
In most schools, the teachers have played a pioneering role by encouraging children to write and recite poems, draw and colour on topics related to health and hygiene; and sing songs composed by them.
Children, belonging to mostly Bodo and Rabha community, at Sajjanpara LP School, line up and walk up to the handwashing installations singing songs on the importance of handwashing before the midday meals. The school, nestled amidst the picturesque Khasi Hills, has also adopted various natural and eco-friendly measures like making soap cases out of coconut shells and dustbin from sacks.” We try to adopt natural resources which are easily available in the area to keep our school and surroundings clean”, Headmaster Subhan Chandra Bodo said.
The initiative, in collaboration with SSA, has also developed three designs of group handwashing facilities, appropriate to field situation and all these designs have been mainstreamed in the ‘Swachh Bharat, Swachh Vidyalaya’ Mission document for nation-wide up-scaling.
The project has also been appreciated by a Joint Review Mission, commissioned by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Department, which identified mass handwashing with soap before midday meals as one of the best practices being carried out in select schools and has recommended scaling up of the pilot in all schools of Assam.
A simple fun-filled activity of about ten minutes of handwashing with soap in schools is, thus, creating a silent but steady change to ensure a clean, hygienic and germ free rural community.