15 October 2014

Hand washing: Keeping Mongolia’s children healthy

Children washing their hands in rural Mongolia

Today is Global Hand Washing Day. Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to save children’s lives. Each year, 1.7 million children under the age of five die from diarrhoea and pneumonia. Washing hands with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and before handling food, helps reduce disease infections by up to 40 per cent, and has far reaching effects on the health and welfare of children and their communities.

When children don’t wash their hands, they are more likely to get sick, not receive the essential nutrients that they need to grow and develop and are more likely to be absent from school. This in turn affects their ability to reach their full potential. 

While there have been great steps forwards in Mongolia on hand washing, there are still a number of barriers that prevent children from washing their hands. One of the biggest is access. In Mongolia not everyone has access to hand washing facilities. In urban areas 88 per cent of households have a dedicated hand washing location, with water and soap, while this drops to just 63 per cent in rural areas.

Many children from rural Mongolia spend nine months a year living in crowded dormitories, so that they can attend school. Given the high density of people living together in these dormitories, hand washing is especially important. But many dormitories and schools lack adequate facilities or resources.  

At the school and dormitory in Tarialan village, northern Mongolia, the 1,137 students did not have proper hand washing facilities. They had been using a hand washing room that did not have running water or any drainage. Every day, students had to walk to collect water, bring it back to the dormitories and empty the waste water. During winter the temperatures would drop to below minus 45 degrees Celsius. When it was that cold, students would not collect water, and they were not washing their hands. UNICEF worked with the local community to change this by installing sinks in the bathrooms, with running hot and cold water, proper drainage and a hand dryer. The feedback from students, teachers and parents has all been very positive. The children are washing their hands more, getting sick less and are less absent from school. 

UNICEF has replicated this project in several rural schools and dormitories in Khuvsgul, northern Mongolia, helping thousands of children have hand washing facilities, as well as other water, sanitation and hygiene amenities. This is part of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Schools Program, which UNICEF is implementing with local governments, non-government organisations and civil society.

Some serious hand washing in rural Mongolia 

We know that improved access to hand washing facilities has the biggest impact when there is also hygiene education. Consequently, a key part of UNICEF’s work is raising awareness through events, activities, trainings, supporting local campaigns and the media. During last year’s Global Hand Washing Day, partners across the country ran many innovative and exciting events and initiatives, all with the message of the importance of hand washing.

One example from last year was the hand washing reality television show from Khuvsgul. In the show children paid adults a surprise visit and asked them to show them how they wash their hands. The children would then educate the adults on what they could do better and pointing out correct hand washing techniques. The children interviewed a range of adults from parents, teachers and even the Khuvsgul Governor, all the time increasing awareness of hand washing.   

Already the message of hand washing has reached hundreds of thousands of people across Mongolia. But we need to do more. Hand washing protects our children’s health and fosters their development. When we invest in our children’s education, we also need to be investing in hand washing facilities.

Batnasan Nyamsuren is the Water and Sanitation Officer at UNICEF Mongolia and Robin Ward is a Water and Sanitation Consultant at UNICEF Mongolia

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