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Global Handwashing Day: Making a case to leave no one behind

14 Oct 2019

Interview with Om Prasad Gautam, Senior WASH Manager for Hygiene, WaterAid

The Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 uses handwashing with soap as an indicator for national and global monitoring. This clearly highlights the importance of hygiene and its close links with sanitation. On Global Handwashing Day, we spoke to the Hygiene Specialist at WaterAid, Om Prasad Gautam to discuss the importance of hygiene promotion and handwashing change to leave no one behind. Here’s an excerpt from the conversation:

SWA: Could you please help us understand why handwashing is mentioned in Sustainable Development Goals?

Om Prasad Gautam: As you know achieving sustained hygiene behaviour change over time can help in achieving multiple development agenda. Hygiene behaviour change is seen as a cost-effective public health intervention. Achieving sustained behaviour change helps in reducing diarrhoeal disease significantly. Handwashing with soap alone helps reduce diarrhoea by 50 percent, pneumonia up to 50 percent. It can help reduce early childhood infection. Handwashing with soap can also reduce school absenteeism. Achieving other behaviour change can ensure dignity, and maximize productivity among different people. So, it’s such a vibrant and fundamental [issue] for any development agenda. At the same time behaviour change is always seen as a complex and difficult undertaking. That’s why in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) era, the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector [was] primarily focused on taps and toilets- building taps and toilets. Particularly in the health sector they are much more focusing on treating clients rather than focusing on behaviour change. There was huge learning in both the sectors. I think this learning pushed the whole sector to demand and ask for a robust behaviour change as part of the development agenda. So, therefore, behaviour change has been included as part of the SDG6- target 6.2, particularly handwashing with soap added as a indicator in SDGs. That helped us for – one, re-positioning the behaviour change programming thoroughly, at the same time, also collecting global evidence from different countries to make a policy decision around behaviour change.

SWA: It is increasingly becoming evident that handwashing is not a time-time project but would require the system to be working towards effective behaviours. So, how do we take the systems approach to hygiene behaviour change?

Om Prasad Gautam: Behaviour change has always been seen as an add-on activity. It was always seen as an activity about changing people’s awareness. This has always been seen as a role for WASH sector. Behaviour change is also seen as a kind of activity delivering messages. This should not be the case. If behaviour change is fundamental for achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals, it has to be seen as a thorough programme itself. So, the positioning in behaviour change programming itself should have a thorough programmatic approach. It should also link with the institutional mechanism, the sector policy, the financing mechanism, for which sector coordination mechanism has to be in place, in order to better design, implement and evaluate the programming. There should be an institutional framework to guide how we better design behaviour change intervention. There should be a sector financing in place– how we invest in behaviour change in order to maximize the current investment in water supply, sanitation, health, nutrition and education programming because behaviour change is fundamental for achieving those multiple development agendas as well. So, when it comes to designing, implementing and evaluating, we should definitely look at systems approach for behaviour change. That links with, of course, changing the individual behaviour, at the same time, changing the behaviour of the policy makers, donors and program collaborators.

SWA: This year’s Global Handwashing Day theme– Clean Hands for All follows the year-long push to leave no one behind in the SDG agenda. Leave No One Behind is also one of the guiding principles of SWA framework, how could our global multi-stakeholder partnership help mobilize this issue?

Om Prasad Gautam: This theme is quite important and vital for this year because we want to minimize the inequalities particularly, linking with behaviour change with handwashing with soap. In the sector, there are disparities when it comes to having access to services. We have seen the recent data from JMP [WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme]- there is a disparity between different countries having basic handwashing facility with soap and water. Disparities exist between urban and rural; disparity exists between rich and poor and also exist within the countries and within the districts based on geography as well as the city and the population within the development frame. So, advocating this agenda through a Global Handwashing Day has helped minimizing those gaps. There are so many platforms through which we can engage the policy makers, the ministers, the civil society organisations in order to advocate the importance of handwashing with soap. Similarly, Similarly, to advocate prioritizing and politicizing the hand hygiene as part of the development agenda because this is such a fundamental agenda for achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals. Through the SWA platform we can also advocate for proper financing, we can also advocate for sector coordination mechanism, we can also advocate for the right partnership in order to drive the large-scale behaviour change programming.

Additional resources:

  1. Advocacy toolkit for hygiene advocacy, can be accessed here.
  2. Read how SWA’s Research and Learning partner, WaterAid is advocating for hygiene promotion.