Why I support Global Handwashing Day

Addise Amado is Water and Sanitation Manager for one of Tearfund’s partner organizations, Kale Heywet Church, Ethiopia. He is currently completing a Master’s degree in water and environment management in the UK before returning home.

In the UK hand-washing is a perfectly normal thing to do. There’s nothing remarkable about seeing someone wash their hands. However, in many rural communities in Ethiopia, like the one I grew up in, washing your hands is not the norm. The normal thing to do, the accepted thing, is to defecate in the open because there isn’t a toilet, and not to wash your hands afterward.

So why the difference between these two countries? I believe that education is a huge part of the answer. Without knowledge, without understanding the impacts on health, habits won’t change.

Teaching someone to wash their hands sounds a simple enough task, but trying to change behaviour patterns or habits is always challenging. The need for hand-washing can be clearly demonstrated – washing your hands with soap and water reduces the risk of diarrhoeal diseases by nearly 40%. But although communities in Ethiopia know first-hand how destructive these diseases can be, they may not realise the connection with hand-washing.

People need to know the critical moments for hand-washing (e.g., after going to the toilet, before handling food, after cleaning babies’ bottoms) and understand why it is important. You need soap and water. When I was a child soap was something that we saved for clothes, it wouldn’t be ‘wasted’ on hands. People also need to dry their hands; wet hands are a perfect breeding ground for germs.

But why should anyone listen to people from outside their village, just because we claim that this is a better way to live? The approach that we use within Kale Heywet Church is to involve the community at every stage.

Community groups are created, they assess current practices and analyse what needs to change. Then they are the ones to work out solutions and implement them. Our role is to support and facilitate this process. And to provide the expertise needed, like with hygiene promotion.

But this process, village by village, takes time, and without follow-up and encouragement people can easily slip back into their old habits, even if they know they shouldn’t. For example, I conducted some research into hand-washing in one village: 60% of inhabitants said that they washed their hands with soap after going to the toilet; observations showed that only 10% of them actually did so.

For me, one of the best things about working in hygiene, sanitation and water is the way the community can get involved. Empowering a community to see the solutions to the problems they face doesn’t have to be finance intensive as they are supported to carry out the analysis, problem-solving and implementation themselves. They can take control of the situation.

Seeing the health benefits that come from improved hygiene is immensely rewarding, but so too is seeing members of a community take on leadership roles in their hygiene, sanitation and water projects.

The situation is improving across Ethiopia. Kale Keywet Church works in 23 districts across four regions of the country. However, greater advocacy and resources are needed if the simple, life-saving message of hand-washing is to reach every person. Global Handwashing Day may not mean much in the UK, but for millions of poor communities around the world it is a day that draws attention to the ongoing need for investment in this critical field.

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