Clean hands help tackle malnutrition
Clean hands help tackle malnutrition pic credit Unicef India

Child Cabinet Members Help Tackle Malnutrition Through Hygiene

The simple act of handwashing before a meal can be life-saving as it can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by almost 30%. One doesn’t have to be a scientist to realise the link between diarrhoea and malnutrition.

The school bell rings and children rush out of their classrooms for their Mid-Day Meals. Members of the Child Cabinet don bright blue smocks, and with pride and purpose, direct children to wash their hands with soap before lunch.

This is a common sight in schools where Splash, a global non-profit organisation, works to benefit children in urban poverty. Splash aims to bring handwashing, safe water and clean toilets to 2,200 government schools in Kolkata. They support the installation and maintenance of infrastructure like distinctively coloured orange handwashing stations, as well as create engaging communications that empower children and teachers to be leaders for the cause of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), increasing their awareness and use.

The simple act of handwashing before a meal can be life-saving as it can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by almost 30%. One doesn’t have to be a scientist to realise the link between diarrhoea and malnutrition. Fifty percent of malnutrition is associated with repeated diarrhoea or intestinal worm infections from unsafe water or poor sanitation or hygiene.

We can help break the effect that poor WASH has on malnutrition by building toilets in every household and improving water quality. However, that alone has often proved to be insufficient. This is not just an infrastructure challenge but a social change imperative, which needs champions. Splash demonstrates how children are effective agents of change when it comes to influencing behaviour in their classrooms and beyond. These children are influencers in their homes and communities, nudging their parents to buy soap and teaching their classmates how and when to use it.

The Right to Education Act of 2009 mandated, among other things, that every school have separate toilets for boys and girls, as well as a Child Cabinet and focal teachers who champion WASH. As a result, schools equipped with toilet facilities for girls jumped from 59% in 2009 to 85% by 2014. However, use and maintenance indicators stubbornly refused to budge. The Government of India’s Swachh Bharat, Swachh Vidyalaya (Clean India, Clean School) campaign of 2014 attempted to fix that, with additional funding for WASH in schools, including maintenance support, group handwashing facilities, and behaviour change activities. Schools with high WASH standards were publicly and financially rewarded to drum up a spirit of competition. Though these government programmes are milestones, key gaps remain, such as ineffective WASH messaging, low soap availability, and poor infrastructure maintenance.

Splash’s model emphasises ownership of the programme by school leadership and the children themselves, as Child Cabinet Ministers. Not only is there a festive atmosphere during the soap drives led by the Child Cabinet, the pride that children take in running their own WASH activities and having child-friendly infrastructure is palpable and irresistible. They share inspiring stories, like that of Hafeeza, who now regularly attends school after sufficient girls’ toilets were built as part of the programme.

Children are powerful agents of change for a healthier school, home, and world. Splash’s intervention applies technology, behavioural economics, and business principles, to support these mighty child champions!

Soap and clean water save lives. Toilets give grace and dignity. Both can transform our society and our country. Malnutrition cripples’ children’s futures but it can be defeated through WASH – its most cost-effective fighter.

Do you wash your hands with soap, and every time that you should? If not, start now!

(Hisham Mundol and Biva Rajbhandari work at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), India. CIFF is an independent philanthropic organization that works with a range of partners seeking to transform the lives of children and adolescents in developing countries. Its areas of work include maternal and child health, adolescent sexual health, nutrition, education, and deworming, tackling child slavery and exploitation, and supporting smart ways to slow down and stop climate change.)