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Water, Sanitation & Hygiene

Handwashing: It’s More Powerful Than You Think

By Caitlin Gruer

Malnutrition is one of the most prevalent health problems in the world.  More than 925 million people suffer from it worldwide, including more than 200 million children.

Global Handwashing Day

When we think about fighting malnutrition, we tend to think about making sure that people get enough nutritious food to eat; while this is undeniably important, it is only half the battle. 

Equally important is preventing the underlying diseases and conditions that can stop people from properly absorbing nutrients and calories, when they are available.  If a child has frequent diarrhea, or chronic intestinal parasites, she is likely to be malnourished even when she has regular access to nutritious food.

This is where water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) activities (like handwashing!) play a fundamental role.

You may never have thought of handwashing or your toilet as weapons in the fight against malnutrition, but that’s exactly what they are.

Good WASH practices dramatically reduce the prevalence of diarrhea, intestinal parasites, and environmental enteropathy.  These conditions can prevent nutrient absorption and decrease a person’s appetite; they are common causes of malnutrition, and they can all be prevented through improved WASH practices. Handwashing alone can decrease the prevalence of diarrhea by 42-47 percent!

So what does this mean?  It means that WASH and nutrition programming must go hand-in-hand to be most effective.

In recent years we have seen significant progress towards more combined projects, with the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other major development partners acknowledging and promoting the importance of integrated programming.  

However, next comes the task of actually integrating these WASH and nutrition programs and developing strategies for how to do so effectively.  Recognizing this unmet need, Plan International is experimenting and innovating approaches to bridge the gap.

  • In Indonesia, through the Because I am a Girl campaign, Plan is working to reduce under-nutrition in children under 5 years old through a holistic program centered around providing young mothers with the knowledge and resources they need to ensure their families are healthy.  In addition to learning about breastfeeding, the basics of nutrition, and preparing safe food, mothers learn about handwashing and the impact this simple behavior can have on their children. 
  • In Nepal, Plan is working to reduce the prevalence of diarrhea and improve nutrition outcomes by promoting good hygiene and sanitation practices.  We support Pregnant Women’s Groups that integrate family planning and WASH with community-based maternal and child health activities such as nutrition education.  We also implement sanitation programming as one component of a large food security and nutrition program – called PAHAL – that is led by Mercy Corps.  By integrating Plan’s sanitation activities with other partners’ work in nutrition, food security, and resilience, the project will address both the symptoms and causes of food insecurity.
  • In Tanzania, Plan is training parents, caregivers, community health workers, and local leaders to improve the nutrition and development outcomes of young children in the community. Plan provides training on micronutrient supplementation to improve the nutritional value of food fed to young children, and stresses important hygiene practices like handwashing.

In these ways, Plan seeks to champion the integration of nutrition and WASH, working towards a future where no child suffers from malnutrition.   

It may be simple, but it packs a powerful punch.  That’s one great reason why we celebrate Global Handwashing Day on October 15.   

For more information on Plan’s WASH projects, visit our WASH page

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