While water and sanitation infrastructure provides the physical conditions for hygiene, good hygiene behaviours are crucial in preventing disease and successfully treating existing medical conditions. 

Poor hygiene means children are regularly ill and miss school, adults are not able to work to support their families, patients are at risk in healthcare environments, and people’s dignity is compromised. By changing their hygiene behaviours, people can keep themselves and their environment clean; stay healthy and stop diseases spreading; and live dignified lives.

However, hygiene remains one of the least prioritised areas of development. While it is, in theory, an integrated part of global water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) work, in reality this is often not the case.

One of the major challenges in getting governments and service providers to prioritise hygiene, is the lack of understanding of how it links with health, social and economic outcomes. Research shows that improving hygiene practices is often an afterthought, and standalone hygiene intervention programmes are rare.

Handwashing with soap: why should we care?

What role should handwashing play in the global development agenda and why should we care about handwashing with soap? Om Gautam Prasad explains.

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WaterAid/Tom Pilston

At WaterAid, we include hygiene in everything we do.

In addition to promoting and supporting the delivery of handwashing facilities in people’s homes, schools, health centres and other community spaces, we change hygiene behaviour.

We know from experience that simply sharing knowledge of good hygiene practices rarely results in sustained behaviour change. So instead, based on evidence of what does work, we design hygiene behaviour change intervention packages to motivate people by understanding and appealing to what they care about, taking into account the norms and values they share with their wider community.

Key hygiene behaviours we focus on include:

  • handwashing with soap at critical moments
  • managing water safely, from its source to its consumption
  • hygienic use of sanitation facilities so that human faeces is dealt with safely
  • food hygiene
  • menstrual hygiene
  • other context-specific behaviours, such as face washing and waste management.

We monitor and evaluate our work to learn from it, and share this learning to make a bigger difference. We support and encourage governments and service providers to integrate hygiene promotion into their policies and programmes and resource it adequately. 

We collaborate with ministries and agencies responsible for women’s issues, young people and the environment, including the private sector and academia. And we raise awareness of the importance of good hygiene and motivate others through partnerships in WASH, education, food and nutrition, and health – especially maternal and child health and trachoma.

We won’t stop until good hygiene behaviour and facilities are normal for everyone, everywhere.

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