Making Handwashing a Habit

15th October 2016

Raleigh International works to Make Handwashing a Habit in rural communities around the world. On Global Handwashing Day today, alumna Anna Reeve looks at why handwashing is so important.

You go to your bathroom, turn the tap on, pump out some lovely smelling soap and wash your hands. Easy, right?

What if you had to walk a kilometre to the nearest water source? Would you pour it on your hands or would you save it to drink? And what if nowhere nearby sells soap? Would you spend precious time searching for it and pay money for it, or instead focus on feeding your family?

For many of us, handwashing is an easy, effortless habit. But on Global Handwashing Day, let’s think about the huge number of people that face obstacles to the simple act of cleaning their hands. Let’s talk about the impact that has on their lives. Let’s consider what can be done to tackle this seemingly straightforward problem.

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A trillion germs can live in just one gram of human faeces, alongside 10 million viruses and one million bacteria. Pretty gross. When these germs, viruses and bacteria are on our hands they are easily passed to our food and into our digestive system. Whilst a healthy, nourished person might experience discomfort and a few days of sickness, the impact could be deadly for a person whose body is already dealing with the effects of dehydration and malnutrition.

The statistics are staggering. Diarrheal related illness is a leading cause of death in children under five, killing 760,000 each year according to the World Health Organisation. But effective handwashing can halve this death rate.

In the rural communities where we work in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Nepal and Borneo, handwashing can prevent illness – but the knock on is just as important. Healthy children can attend school, get the most out of their education and have the best prospects for their future. Globally 272 million school days are currently missed because children are poorly with diarrhoea. And unwell adults may not be able to work, or work to their full potential. We all know how draining an upset stomach can be on our energy. Without work there is no income and a whole family can suffer.

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So to help tackle the problem, Raleigh volunteers work with community members to raise awareness about the importance of handwashing. They invent memorable songs and silly dances that demonstrate best practice, overcoming language barriers and making a lasting impact on community members of all ages. The aim is to Make Handwashing a Habit (the theme of Global Handwashing Day 2016) and to encourage lasting behavioural change that will be passed on from generation to generation.

Our community projects also improve access to safe running water. Volunteers work alongside local community members to build or repair gravity-fed water systems that pipe water from a clean source to homes. They construct tippy taps that enable handwashing with minimal water usage. Whole families and schools then have access to handwashing water when they need it. It’s no longer necessary to rely on one small basin of stagnant water to wash hands, food and dishes.

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