What we have learned teaching handwashing around the world

Senior technical officer, Social & Behavior Change Communication

The most important advice from health experts to stay safe from the coronavirus pandemic? Properly wash your hands. It sounds simple yet, at Children International, we have seen proof of the correlation between proper handwashing and good health, and lives saved. It’s part of our preventive health curriculum we have taught to more than 71,500 children and parents around the world.

Children International is a global humanitarian organization helping children break the cycle of poverty through education and empowerment. We work in 10 countries around the world in areas of dense poverty, where we can deliver the greatest impact. My role in social & behavior change communication gives me a front-row seat in helping our participants learn and practice healthy habits.

As COVID-19 continues its deadly march across the world, with sobering statistics nearly impossible to wrap our minds around, it seems appropriate to share: 1) How Children International is responding to the pandemic. 2) What we’ve learned through our handwashing education, in the hope that others also may benefit.

Engage youth by making it fun

On a recent visit to Delhi, India, I experienced the joy of seeing an original dance performance by a group of teens in our program. The dance, titled “The Six Steps of Handwashing,” was energetic, informative and fun to watch. The six dancers were invited to perform it during their school’s annual talent show and it became a big hit!

These once shy adolescents are now stars in their school and community and have educated their peers. It’s satisfying to see this performance have such a positive impact and grow from the seed which was planted in our programming.

Model and track behavior

Our education model follows a learn-by-doing strategy. In this case, we show families how to properly wash their hands through this step-by-step curriculum, and ask them to replicate it. We ensure they are absorbing and practicing correct techniques. Then, we follow-up with a program evaluation component, observing handwashing habits at home to help guarantee best practices. This also allows us to track and measure program effectiveness, which aligns with one of Children International’s core values of learning and adapting through data and research.

We know our method works. Last year in Zambia, Children International families remained healthy during a cholera outbreak. It was a scary and uncertain time, but remarkable to see healthy habits making a difference for our families.

Partner with others to create change

Cultivating smart partnerships is another way we generate better outcomes for the children and families in our care. For instance, our partnership with Clean the World, a nonprofit that recycles soap from hotels and gives it to those in need, has never been more important.

This collaboration has allowed us to distribute more than 11 million bars of soap in Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico, Honduras, Zambia, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. It has been such a strong partnership that, together, we are doubling the amount of soap we distribute this year. Children International and Clean the World are working to prevent millions of deaths caused by hygiene-related illnesses every year. This year, having access to soap and handwashing education during the coronavirus pandemic is even more critical to save lives.

Why is this so powerful? Because our children live in poverty and desperate circumstances. Our 67 community centers around the world provide them with education, resources, medical/dental care and, perhaps most importantly, hope and dignity.

My friend and colleague, Ramdas Pai, regional advisor for Asia & Africa, recently shared this with me: “In Kolkata, I realized a child was intently watching me use hand sanitizer. His eyes met mine as he gestured a handwashing technique that I had missed. I duly followed his action and the child flashed a huge grin.”

Does handwashing really save lives?

YES! Before this global pandemic, good handwashing habits were quietly saving lives and preventing illness. The World Health Organization estimates that proper handwashing with soap and water can reduce diarrhea-associated deaths by as much as 50%.1 A peer-reviewed study by researchers in London estimates that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million global deaths per year could be prevented.2 How much more evident — and critical — this is today.

In my personal life, the importance of handwashing was driven home after my son was diagnosed with tapeworm last December. One of the critical interventions in avoiding tapeworm reinfection is maintaining clean hands. I took this to heart, becoming so vigilant about it that I earned the nickname “Handwash Mom” at home. Whenever I call my son’s name for dinner or after I hear the toilet flush, his first response is now: “Yes, I have washed my hands!”

Proper handwashing is the single most effective action we can all do to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, not touching our faces and social distancing are also keys to flattening the curve of those infected. My hope is that a little education can make a big difference. May we all commit to doing our part!

To help curb the spread of coronavirus and other preventable diseases, Children International is investing $650,000 toward handwashing education.




appu pai
Apr 12, 2020

Very well articulated, Shweta. Hand washing has never been more important than now. And its fantastic that hand washing has been one of Children International's key messaging over the years. I would think that we have definitely helped (albeit indirectly) in flattening the curve in the 10 countries that CI works in.

May 12, 2020

Dear Handwash Mom! Brava, a well-written, important piece.

Jul 17, 2022

Wonderful article! So great that CI is partnering with Clean the World. The original dance performance in Deli, The Six Steps of Handwashing, sounds inspiring!

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