Handwashing in Malawi: Our Hands, Our Future

Alice Mwale, a student at Thundwe Primary School in Mzimba, comes out of a sanitary facility and uses the hand washing facilities.
© UNICEF Malawi/2012/Anthony Asael

By Paulos Workneh,Chief of WASH UNICEF Malawi

We do not need expensive supplies or high-tech treatments to prevent diseases and save the lives of children. Despite this, an unacceptably high number of children are still dying from easily preventable diarrheal diseases in Malawi. Cholera outbreaks are continuing to take lives needlessly and using up resources that could be used for other things.

These highly preventable diarrheal diseases are responsible for 18 per cent of infant and child mortality in Malawi. To stop this, one of the most effective things we can do is wash our hands more frequently and wash them with soap.

15 October, is Global Handwashing Day, a day dedicated to remind us all about the value of washing hands with soap. This helps us to protect our health and build our futures in Malawi.

You may ask how. Washing hands with soap prevents the transmission of a variety of bacteria and viruses, which cannot be removed by water alone. Some of these viruses and bacteria cause diarrheal disease such as cholera and pneumonia, two of the primary causes of child deaths in Malawi, as well as absenteeism at school and work.

Washing hands with soap at critical times — after using the toilet, changing a child and before eating food — can reduce the incidents of diarrheal disease by nearly 40 percent. It can cut the rates of respiratory infections by about one-quarter. Globally, handwashing with soap can prevent many of the 272 million schooldays lost each year to diarrheal disease and half of the infections acquired in healthcare settings.

A young girl in Nsanje washes her hands with soap.
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Rebecca Phwitiko

Put simply, handwashing with soap has the power to stop the spread of diseases and improve school attendance. Hand washing with soap really can impact our future.

It’s not all bad news. Malawi is doing well in as far as the presence of sanitation and hand washing facilities is concerned. The majority of all households have basic toilets and handwashing facilities. However, according to the Millennium Development Goals End line survey of 2015 the actual practice of hand washing with soap at critical times is shockingly low, at less than 10 per cent. Far too many people are still not washing hands when they should.

Washing hands is not expensive. They are many ways of improving hand washing practices that are affordable, even in the poorest communities. At home, especially in rural areas where there is no running water, parents can place small basins filled with water and soap outside pit latrines to encourage their families to wash their hands with soap. The same can be done in schools and hospitals.

About half of all schools in Malawi have access to adequate sanitary facilities. However, where sanitation facilities are available, teachers can do more to lead by example. They should demonstrate good handwashing practices whenever possible to ensure that their students have good role models to follow. The European Union (EU) is supporting UNICEF to train the teachers in three key hygiene practices: proper use of latrines, use of safe drinking water, and hand washing with soap, in order to transfer this practice to their students.

In villages, the EU is supporting UNICEF to provide water points, set up water committees in the community, and supporting the installation of improved water and sanitation facilities in hospitals.

A school girl in Nsanje washes her hands after using the latrine.
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/

With regular cholera outbreaks continuing to occur in Malawi, it is vital that every one of us should get in the habit of washing hands with soap after using the toilet, when changing a child, and before eating food. By washing hands with soap, you will contribute towards creating a healthier future for all Malawians. Remember, our hands are our future!

School girls in Mzimba make use of the borehole facility near their Primary School
© UNICEF Malawi/2012/Anthony Asael

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