PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone, 1 July 2009 – Practicing good hygiene is anything but a chore for the children of E.M. Primary School in Laya, in the Port Loko district of Sierra Leone.
“We learn about good hygiene through games and sports,” says Fatmata, 12, a proud member of the School Health Club. “It’s a lot of fun, but we also have a serious responsibility to pass these messages on to our families and friends.”
Before the School Health Club members and their teachers got involved, infectious diseases caused by poor sanitation had been rife in Laya. Now, thanks to the club’s efforts, the majority of families in the surrounding villages have access to a latrine.
Children as agents of change
The club, which meets twice a week, is supported by UNICEF and a local non-governmental organization. Its goal is to promote the construction and use of latrines in Port Loko.
As an example of a School-led Total Sanitation (SLTS) programme, the club empowers children to be the agents of change within their communities by encouraging local families to construct latrines and end the practice of open defecation.
Fatmata and her family are in one of the households that took action as a result of the SLTS programme. Following the death of Fatmata’s father, life for her family was difficult. With nine children to support, her mother had little money available to spend on sanitation supplies. Due to a lack of facilities, the entire family was required to practice open defecation in the surrounding bush.
“I used to be so afraid of going to the toilet, especially because of the snakes,” explained Fatmata.
The introduction of SLTS to Laya encouraged Fatmata’s mother to make a change. Earlier this year, with help from her neighbours, she began to construct a latrine using local materials. The latrine is now complete and the family uses it on a daily basis.
Keeping children healthy and educated
UNICEF believes that working with schoolchildren is one of the most effective methods of promoting good hygiene and sanitation practices across communities. And in Sierra Leone, such interventions are greatly needed.
Communicable diseases, such as diarrhoea, also cause many school-age children to regularly miss school. Families living on limited finances are further strained when these diseases require costly medical treatments.
UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure that SLTS, combined with other health and education interventions, enables children like Fatmata to remain healthy and continue their education.