Small huts, mud in the streets, open sewers, stagnant water, garbage and bad smell… This is where the poor communities of Neak Loeung live. As nearly half the population in Cambodia, most of them do not have access to safe water and basic sanitation. (UNICEF, 2014) Children, and especially younger children, are the first victims of unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and insufficient hygiene. They are more vulnerable to skin disease, respiratory illnesses, intestinal and other waterborne and excreta-related diseases. Diarrhea continues to be the second leading cause of death among children in East Asia. (WHO, 2004)
In Cambodia, an estimated 10,000 overall children die every year, largely owing to lack of sanitation and poor hygiene practices. (UNICEF, 2014) Yet, hand washing with soap can decrease diarrheal deaths by more than 40 per cent. This means that communicating key hygiene practices would have the potential to save 4,000 children per year. However, only 6 out of 10 people in Cambodia practice hand washing. (2010 National Sanitation and Hygiene Survey)
Hand washing at Damnok Toek Centre for street children © AEA Cambodia / 2015 / Chin
Education and health in synergy
AEA Cambodia’s hygiene awareness and promotion efforts focus on changing behaviour by such as hand washing with soap, brushing teeth, treating and drinking safe water. “The hygiene course is one of our compulsory courses. It is important to lessen the spread of disease. I always remind my students to wash their hands before and after playing, before lunch, and before and after going to the toilet” says Mr. Sokha, a teacher at Damnok Toek centre for street children supported by AEA Cambodia. Good hand-washing practices are supported with consistent access to water and adequate supplies of soap. Soap, toothbrushes and toothpastes are available next to all sinks. As a result, “children regularly brush their teeth and wash their hands several times a day. I now observe that they are less sick and less absent,” adds Mr. Sokha.
Mr Sokha, teacher, provides compulsory hygiene courses © AEA Cambodia / 2015 / Chin
The situation is severe in a country where about 40 per cent of primary schools do not have safe drinking water facilities. (UNICEF, 2014) Washing hands, brushing teeth and drinking clean water are simple but essential activities to prevent nutrition deficiencies, diarrhea and worm infestations. All are related to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene – and all affect school participation and learning. Cleaner environments translate into optimal living and learning conditions for children.
In addition, discrimination is widespread in school environments and some children can be discriminated against due to perceptions of being unclean. Hygiene education can significantly enhance the quality of children’s educational experience and well-being. It fosters social inclusion and individual selfrespect.
Paving the way for new generations of healthy children
Poor sanitation and hygiene in schools also affects the wider community. Children who pick up infectious agents in settings such as schools can bring home microbes that may lead to household members becoming infected. Children and youth can become agents of change in their families and lead to community adoption of good hygiene behaviours. Samean Pich, 41, and mother of a little girl, explains smiling: “My daughter advised me to wash my hands after eating and to drink clean water” As a result of the adoption of good hygiene practices, “my children have fewer diarrheas, and I pay so less medication,” she says. Working through schools is the best way to reach entire communities. This is the reason why AEA Cambodia intensifies efforts to promote hygiene education in schools, with a special attention paid to the poorest, the most difficult to reach and the most disadvantaged.
Promoting key hygiene behaviours in schools is a first step towards ensuring a healthy physical learning environment. It is an investment in schoolchildren and the health of future generations. It helps children realize their full potential and prepares them for a healthy adult life.
Samean Pich, mother of two children, and her family © AEA Cambodia / 2015 / Chin
Hand washing, a simple practice that has the potential to save thousands of children’s lives in Cambodia © AEA Cambodia / 2015 / Chin