Last summer, I happened to visit the Upper Primary School in Sonva village in Bakshi Ka Talab, Lucknow district. As the bell for the midday meal rang, the students, instead of running towards the kitchen, ran to the communal tap. As they washed their hands with surgical precision, they sang a song:
“With running water our two hands play,
In and out the colourful soap dances away!
It bubbles and froths between our fingers
Under our nails it cleans and lingers
Then all the soap we wash away!”
From a distance, school principal Kiran Mishra and I watched them. “It is amazing how one song has made my students so aware of hand-washing hygiene!” says Mishra. “We’ve observed over the last few months how infections among students and the consequent absenteeism has reduced now that the children are taking better care of their own hygiene,” she says.
Today, as the entire world population is feverishly washing hands to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and thousands of hand-washing tutorials have mushroomed overnight on social media, this initiative by a small NGO in Uttar Pradesh seems prescient. Set up in 1995 by Lucknow-based gynaecologist Neelam Singh, Vatsalya has been quietly teaching schoolchildren to wash their hands for the last six years using a mix of imaginative programmes. “As a doctor, I’ve seen how proper and frequent hand wash can prevent so many bacteria and viruses, not just Covid-19,” says Singh. “So teaching students how and when to wash their hands has been a key aspect of our work for a while now.”
Here’s how they do it. Vatsalya has, through regular workshops in 80 government schools, created what they refer to as WASH brigades. These consist of children who are trained as peer educators in matters pertaining to health, sanitation and menstrual hygiene. These children spread awareness about correct hand-washing techniques, the importance of good sanitation practices at home (especially in kitchens and toilets) and the need for clean drinking water. Further, each member of the brigade is tasked with creating a Swacchta Toli, cleanliness group, in their own neighbourhood. In this manner, Vatsalya has been able to raise awareness about hygiene and sanitation matters among over 8,000 children in 56 gram panchayats of Lucknow district. “We found that the peer-to-peer approach creates the most widespread impact,” says Singh. “In fact when we became aware of the spread of the coronavirus, we started an intensive campaign using these very networks to promote hand washing and raise awareness about how the virus transmission could be prevented by simple behavioural change.”
The rationale for setting up the peer groups is that by getting children involved in improving water and sanitation infrastructure in their school as well as their village, the overall health of the community improves. Medical research suggests that hand washing reduces the incidence of diseases as varied as diarrhoea and hookworm infection, influenza and childhood stunting. It has other positive consequences as well. “School enrolment and attendance improves, there is greater gender equity (in access to education and menstrual hygiene needs) and educational outcomes become much better,” says Singh.
The Vatsalya model is easily replicable and demonstrates how, by building the capacities of individuals and training them to develop and spread a simple behaviour change like hand washing, public health can be improved significantly. Much of the organisation’s work on health and sanitation is sponsored by agencies such as Plan India and WaterAid. Bank of America has sponsored a large chunk of its school WASH programme. “In the coming years, we’re going to try to spread the message to as many more villages as we can,” says Singh.
“This pandemic has shown all of us how critically important this simple practice is.”
To learn more, visitvatsalya.org or follow them on Facebook.