People cannot stay healthy without water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure. But good hygiene behaviours are just as important.

Poor hygiene practices mean children are regularly ill and miss school, adults are not able to work to support their families, patients are at risk in health centres, and people’s dignity is compromised. When hygiene behaviours are improved, people can keep themselves and their surroundings clean. This allows them to stay healthy 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. Similarly, while hygiene should be integrated into existing public health, nutrition and education programmes to maximise their benefits, it is often only considered as an add-on.  

One of the major challenges in getting governments and WASH service providers to prioritise hygiene is a lack of understanding about its links to health, social and economic outcomes. There is also limited understanding and capacity to design, implement and evaluate robust hygiene programmes that lead to long-lasting behaviour change.

Improving hygiene behaviours is possible, but it is often a complex and difficult task that requires the right approach and techniques.

Multi-country campaign to improve hygiene during COVID-19

Hygiene promotion was never more crucial than during the pandemic. We rapidly designed and delivered a large-scale hygiene behaviour change programme to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, reaching 242 million people through our country programmes in Asia and Africa.

Carol, 12, participates in a handwashing demonstration in the classroom with the teacher, Kazungula District, Zambia, October 2020.
Image: WaterAid/Chileshe Chanda

At WaterAid, we include hygiene in everything we do and improving hygiene behaviours is central to our work.

We know from experience that simply sharing knowledge of good hygiene practices rarely results in long lasting behaviour change. So instead, we focus on changing people’s behaviours using innovatively designed and creative behaviour change programmes, based on evidence of what works in specific contexts. 

We use a Behaviour Centred Design approach to develop, implement and evaluate our programmes. We focus on motivating people by understanding and appealing to what they care about, and encouraging them to consider the norms and values they share with their community. 

Key hygiene behaviours we focus on improving include:

  • Handwashing with soap at critical moments
  • Managing water safely from source to consumption, including water treatment
  • Clean use of sanitation facilities, so that human faeces are dealt with safely
  • Food hygiene
  • Menstrual hygiene
  • Other context-specific behaviours, such as waste management and face washing

We implement hygiene behaviour change programmes across households, schools, health centres, public spaces and work places using three different methods:

  • Mainstreaming hygiene, including into existing water and sanitation programmes
  • Integrating hygiene into existing health and education programmes, such as child health, immunisation and nutrition programmes
  • Implementing national, regional and local hygiene campaigns

We monitor and evaluate our hygiene promotion work to learn from it and share our learnings to make a bigger impact. We also use our findings to influence policy makers and governments to implement hygiene behaviour change interventions at scale. 

We collaborate with ministries and agencies responsible for WASH, health, education, nutrition and the environment, including the private sector and academia. We encourage them to integrate hygiene promotion into their policies and programmes, and resource it adequately. 

And we raise awareness of the importance of good hygiene behaviours and motivate others to follow through our partnerships.

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

Latest resources and expert opinion

Top image: Sidney, 9, washing his hands at one of the handwashing stations outside his school's new sanitation block in Limpopo province, South Africa. June 2023.

Second image: Carol, 12, participates in a handwashing demonstration in the classroom with the teacher at school in Kazungula District, Zambia. October 2020.

Page last updated: May 2024