Global Handwashing Day: time to finish the job on Global Goal 6

Posted 15 Oct 2015 by Margaret Batty

Global representatives will soon be deciding on the indicators that will be used to measure the progress of the new Global Goals. This Global Handwashing Day, Margaret Batty, Director of Global Policy and Campaigns at WaterAid, discusses why handwashing should be be included among the indicators for Goal 6.

The facts are hard to swallow: every single day 1,400 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

We are now one step closer to a time when such needless tragedy will be a thing of the past, with the recent agreement of the UN Global Goals on Sustainable Development for 2030. The goals, adopted by 191 countries, aim to eradicate extreme poverty and ensure healthier lives in the next 15 years and beyond.

The crucial role played by access to clean water, improved sanitation and good hygiene behaviour in ensuring healthy, dignified and prosperous lives has been rightly acknowledged with the inclusion of a dedicated goal – Goal 6.

This is a significant development, because under the Millennium Development Goals, which ended this year, water and sanitation were relegated to side issues under targets on environmental sustainability. However, there is still work to be done in the formation of the new Global Goals if we are to deliver on their potential, particularly in how action and progress on each goal will be linked and coordinated.

At the end of October, officials from more than 100 countries and UN agencies will meet in Bangkok to discuss how to measure progress towards each of the development targets. This is crucial if we are to ensure that the goals are met by 2030 and do not miss anyone out.

Twenty year old health and sanitation facilitator Sarita Nepali meets with local women to demonstrate hand washing techniques, Palate, Babai, Bardhya district, Nepal, January 2012.
Health and sanitation facilitator Sarita Nepali meets with local women to demonstrate handwashing techniques in Bardhya district, Nepal.

The crucial third pillar

This Global Handwashing Day, WaterAid is joining others in the sector in calling for handwashing to feature as an indicator for Goal 6. The presence of handwashing facilities – including sinks with soap and water – at home, in schools, and in health-care facilities is critical to both promoting good hygiene, and monitoring progress.

Diseases spread fast where people are unable to keep themselves and their surroundings clean. Taps and toilets alone are not enough – good hygiene is the essential third pillar.

Frequently overlooked, hygiene, and in particular handwashing, helps ensure good health and prevents malnutrition and infection, enhances dignity, improves people’s wellbeing, and helps boost education by reducing the number of days spent off sick.

Handwashing is recognised as one of the most cost-effective public health interventions by the World Bank and the World Health Organization.

Washing hands with soap and water at key moments, including after going to the toilet, before eating or feeding, and before preparing food, can help prevent life-threatening illnesses such as diarrhoea, cholera, pneumonia and intestinal worms. It also reduces the incidence of skin infections. Washing your face with soap reduces the likelihood of blinding trachoma. Rigorous hygiene including handwashing with chlorinated water helped slow the spread of Ebola in this year’s pandemic. Handwashing alone could cut the risk of diarrhoea almost in half and pneumonia by one-third, saving hundreds of children's lives every day.

Encouraging behaviour change

Unfortunately, in many poor areas soap is used sparingly and kept mainly for washing clothes and bathing. Awareness of the importance of handwashing with soap is often low. Improving access to water, soap and other materials used in hygiene needs to go hand-in-hand with promoting sustainable behaviour change, in the context of social norms and cultural issues.

WaterAid and its partners promote good hygiene practices through a range of activities, led by communities and schools, which help to ensure that the change to washing hands is permanent.

In one programme in Nepal, for instance, this has meant having community health volunteers talk with parents when they bring their children for routine vaccinations about when to wash hands and how to safely prepare water, milk and food. We’ve used drama, song, dancing and art to promote good hygiene.

Most of these efforts concentrate on mothers and schoolchildren who are most vulnerable to disease when water, sanitation and hygiene is not present. They can become key players in cascading these good hygiene practices across their families and communities.

However, community programmes working in small isolated pockets cannot accomplish the Global Goal to deliver hygiene promotion to everyone everywhere by 2030. A coordinated international approach will be required. There is pressure to whittle down the number of measures to be tracked in the Global Goals, but it would be a grave mistake to omit handwashing from those measures.

Good hygiene is a critical accompaniment to safe water and good sanitation in order to realise the health benefits of all three. It is essential if the world’s most vulnerable people are to enjoy better health.

Sign Global Citizen's petition to get a hygiene indicator included in the Global Goals >

Margaret Batty is Director of Global Policy and Campaigns at WaterAid. She tweets as @margaretbatty and you can read more of her work here.


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