Imagine you are a kid living in Kathmandu, Nepal, which has a population density that makes Manhattan seem positively spacious. If you are lucky enough to have water piped into your school, you are firmly cautioned by grown-ups not to drink it (and you wouldn’t anyway, because it is orange). There are no water taps near the toilet, and no soap. You miss school regularly—on average two weeks a year—from illness that could easily be prevented by hand washing. If you are an adolescent girl, you will miss even more school, because you have to stay home during your period. In fact, you are probably going to drop out of school as a teenager, because you will fall so far behind.
Enter Splash’s hygiene education team: a group of fun-loving, energetic, creative women who come to your school several times a year. Before their first visit, some other Splash people put in an amazing water filter that made your school’s water clear and safe to drink. They also installed sinks near the bathrooms.
While the Splash installation people seemed normal enough, you are pretty sure these hygiene teacher ladies are crazy. Instead of making you sit and listen, they play silly games and sing songs. They bring ‘memory’ cards with pictures of kids doing stuff that kids in pictures are not supposed to do—like blowing their noses, brushing their teeth, and clipping their fingernails. They even have you team up with your classmates to write a song about diarrhea! The best part is that you are picked to be in a special club, where you collect enough soap for your school for a whole year. It’s your job to check every day that the soap dish is full and that kids are washing their hands. You also get to teach your schoolmates everything you learn from the crazy ladies. You are thinking maybe one day you will grow up and become a crazy lady yourself.
BORN IN NEPAL
I am proud to say that it has been my privilege to hire and head up this team of crazy and amazing women at Splash for the past two years. As Splash’s Health & Hygiene Manager, I was given the freedom to design the most effective, colorful, and fun hygiene program I could imagine. We began in 2010, partnering with a local organization, NEWAH, with expertise in conducting hygiene trainings in rural Nepal. While we learned a tremendous amount from NEWAH about best practices, we came through the partnership knowing Splash would have to break some serious new ground. We needed to develop hygiene materials appropriate to the urban context where we work—especially if we set the goal of customizing our hygiene program for other countries. As far as I know, Splash is the first international water organization to tackle urban hygiene for kids at this scale.
It took hours of training-the-trainers, defining the purpose of a topic and its key messages, inventing and playing games for each topic, and designing teacher-specific trainings. Our first Hygiene Promoters, Annapurna (Anu) and Shruti, came with intimate knowledge of local culture and taboos, extensive teaching experience with young kids, and a thorough understanding of the challenges young people face in Kathmandu. We knew we’d have to give teachers at the schools the same messaging, so they could model healthy behavior to their students. With the help of Splash’s graphic designer and some great ideas from Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), we developed high-quality, colorful, and fun images for the hygiene program, aimed at the urban kid. And we designed a crucial menstrual hygiene curriculum—an area that is gaining ground internationally as fundamental to increasing opportunities for girls.
One of the first trainings conducted with the new curriculum was at Mahendra Adarsha Vidyashram. The kids were amazing—they voluntarily came in on a Saturday, their one day off from school all week! A little reserved at first, it didn’t take long to get them out of their seats and jumping around. I remember one hysterical moment during a role-playing game. The topic was “Teaching Parents Hygiene,” and Anu-didi (didi means “older sister”) pretended to be the “mom.” It was one boy’s job to convince her to wash her hands after using the toilet. Anu-didi was bent over double, clutching her abdomen and moaning, “Oh, my stomach is hurting! But I have to finish making dinner!” Suddenly this seemingly shy boy became very commanding—not a natural stance for a Nepali child to take with an adult! I’m not exactly sure what he said to her in his rapid-fire Nepali, but his arguments brought laughter to the class, and she finally agreed to wash her hands.
GROWING IN CAMBODIA
Encouraged by our successes in Nepal, this year we expanded the hygiene program to Cambodia. We hired a Hygiene Coordinator, Sea, to oversee implementation at five sites in Siem Reap, including Sangkheum Center for Children and Wat Chork Kindergarten and Primary School. During the nine-month pilot phase (conducted by local experts CSCS), we’re learning everything we can, involving more local government in trainings, strengthening our teacher and parent involvement, and bringing in health workers to answer questions from the kids.
CLEAN HANDS & MORE
And we’re seeing results. Random visits at sites in both Nepal and Cambodia find kids brushing their teeth at school, soap available (and being used!), and kids running—literally running—to wash their hands after using the bathroom. And these are really, really good things. Study after study has shown that healthy hygiene behaviors result in healthier kids: reducing diarrheal disease by up to 40%, cutting down on days of school missed, and increasing a child’s chances of continuing their education.
So where is Splash going from here? We’re merging our “best-ofs” from Nepal, Cambodia, and other experiences we’ve had, and refining the hygiene curriculum. Our next program expansion will happen in Ethiopia. We’re designing a more comprehensive program, increasing the number of sites with active hygiene programs. We’ve grown our Hygiene Promotion team in Nepal from two to six, and we’ll soon hire more hygiene promoters in both Cambodia and Ethiopia. We’re also bringing on a new Hygiene Manager to take my place—yes, I am sad to announce that I am leaving Splash this month (my husband is starting a career with USAID in Washington, DC!). But I’m thrilled to pass the torch to Splash’s new Hygiene Manager, a rock-star teacher with a ton of international experience working with kids and adults.
It’s an exciting time for Splash’s education programs, and I go knowing that I helped plant the seeds of something truly life-changing for kids. Thank you to the entire Splash team, and everyone who has stood beside me on this incredible journey!