ON THE GROUND: Clean hands save lives. It’s as simple as that

Posted by Letswalo M Community Manager on 20 April 2021 9:30 AM SAST
Letswalo M Community Manager photo

Clean hands save lives. It’s as simple as that.

According to UNICEF, in 2016 diarrhoea was responsible for approximately 8% of all deaths of children under five.

Simple hygiene practices, including washing hands with soap, can reduce the rate of diarrhoea by almost 40%.4 But in many areas of South Africa, water and soap are scarce commodities and for thousands of school children, this situation is potentially deadly. 

However, this is not the case at Sishila Primary School, outside Nelspruit in eastern South Africa. Housed under a tin roof is the new “washing station”, a three-meter long pipe with enough outlets to provide water for up to 17 children at the same time. Similar washing stations have been built at another 27 schools spread over four districts in the Province of Mpumalanga. This is where learners wash their hands and brush their teeth as part of their daily routine.

Teaching learners healthy practices, ensuring safe, clean water, and providing hygienic and functional ablution facilities are the cornerstones of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programme. In Mpumalanga, WASH was piloted by the DBE in 393 Maths, Science, and Technology Academy schools. 

In the spirit of CSTL, this was a collaboration between several partners: an international development agency (UNICEF), a technical support agency (MIET AFRICA), the private sector (Kimberly-Clark Corporation), and government (DBE and Department of Health). WASH is one of the priority action areas in South Africa’s CSTL strategy. Safe water, proper sanitation and good hygiene, fundamental to the healthy growth of children, are basic human rights.

“Ensuring that South African children are educated about the importance of washing hands is only part of the battle,” says principal of Shishila, Mr IM Mazibuko. “The real challenge comes in ensuring that the behaviour becomes a habit. This will go a long way in reducing school absenteeism due to diarrhoea and respiratory infections—two of the biggest killers amongst schoolgoing children. 

Key to the success of the programme was a cohort of learner support agents (LSAs). These young people, all matriculants and all previously unemployed, work in schools providing homework and life skills support, as well as care and support to learners in general. 

Nandi has been an LSA in the Ehlanzeni district for over a year. She was excited to be one of the 40 LSAs chosen to take part in the WASH programme and receive training on collecting data, and how to train learner leaders and cleaners about WASH. “It was a great deal of work but it was interesting,” she says. “I had to visit many of the schools to collect important data, like whether there was enough soap in the washing areas.” Once the pilot programme started, thousands of tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes and bars of soap were delivered to each school. 

The LSAs were responsible for the management of the supplies. Nandi also enjoyed working with learner leaders, showing them the correct method of handwashing, how to mentor their peers and how to start handwashing campaigns in their schools.

“We met with learner leaders after school on a regular basis to have campaigns around collecting litter or creating posters about hygiene. “The WASH pilot has ended but I am still a homework LSA and I still keep my eye on our wash station,” she says. 

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