Educational Handwashing Efforts at a Grassroots Level: A Peek into Northern Peru
According to UNICEF, diarrhea is a leading cause of death in children under the age of five. It causes more deaths than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Diseases caused by diarrhea are most often spread through person-to-person contact or fecal-oral transmission, which can be combated by washing hands thoroughly with soap and water. According to a study reported by the CDC, this simple act can reduce nearly 50% of diarrheal diseases by removing bacteria, parasites, and viruses from the hands. Seems like a simple, inexpensive solution right? But what does this look like on the ground?
As a Community Health Educator living in a rural village in northern Peru with the Peace Corps, I saw first-hand the barriers to this simple solution. Although, unlike many places around the world, this community was blessed with sufficient clean water, access to small “tiendas” or shops that sold soap, and rudimentary education on how and why to wash hands, diarrhea was still one of the leading health issues. Why?
While lack of comprehensive education was certainly a contributing factor, the largest obstacle turned out to be converting conditioned behaviors to new, healthier habits. Thankfully, after two years immersed, I was able to find ways to creatively and consistently engage community members, and here are a few things I found particularly helpful.
1. Start education young, especially in schools
Younger students are naturally more receptive to change, and are typically eager and willing to participate in educational activities. I worked with professors at the local elementary school to integrate hygiene and handwashing education into daily lesson plans via songs, pictures, art, dancing, photographs, and stories. Partnering up with the local health post, we were also able to celebrate Global Handwashing Day (October 15) with demonstrations, games, and giveaways.
Leading a handwashing demonstration at the elementary school on Global Handwashing Day.
Showing how our hands can look clean but still carry harmful bacteria during an afterschool club meeting at the elementary school.
2. Incorporate handwashing into any and all activities
During house visits, I always feigned dirty hands and asked to wash them, checking to see if mothers had water and soap on hand while giving a complimentary demonstration. When invited over for lunch (which happened more times than I can count), I always offered to help cook and used it as opportunity to remind mothers to wash hands before cooking and always insisted the whole family wash their hands with me before sitting down to eat. As part of an income-generating project, I also hosted baking classes, and used it as another way to promote the benefits of handwashing.
Washing our hands before sitting down to lunch.
Handwashing demonstration with a group of mothers before we begin a class on healthy eating and nutrition.
3. Celebrate the small wins
Changing habits is hard and each time one of my students or mothers remembered to wash their hands without a reminder, displayed proper hand-washing techniques, or offered me soap and water when I entered their home, I made sure to respond with a positive attitude and lots of encouragement. It can be easy to get discouraged, but every individual you reach is worth commemorating as you are inspiring generations of healthier kids to come. Celebrate it!
Posing with a mother who just won the hat she's wearing by properly demonstrating handwashing techniques learned from one of my classes!
For great tips, activities, games, and information on handwashing, please see:
-- Brit Schneider lived in northern Peru as a member of the Peace Corps from September 2010 until November of 2012. She is currently pursuing a career in health and environmental education with underserved Latino populations.