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The Global Handwashing Partnership

How handwashing behaviour change programmes can save lives in an emergency

August 28, 2019

By: Claudia Codsi, Private Sector Partnerships, Oxfam

As World Water Week started this week, I was reminded of a shocking statistic. In an emergency setting, diarrhoea is responsible for 40% of child deaths – 8 out of 10 of those children are under the age of 2. This appalling rate can be reduced by up to 50% with the simple act of handwashing with soap, an easy, effective and affordable method to protect and prevent disease transmission. Yet too often, this simple intervention is not prioritised in humanitarian responses despite its potential to save lives.

This is why Oxfam and Unilever joined forces, because we both realised that there was an existing problem and that our organisations had the combined expertise to solve this; Oxfam’s vast humanitarian and public health response experience with Lifebuoy’s marketing and behaviour change expertise to better understand what motivates mothers to wash their hands.

Oxfam conducted research with emergency-affected mothers in the Philippines, Pakistan and Nepal which showed that mothers share two universal motivators 1) nurturing their children so that they succeed in life and 2) desire to be affiliated to a community of people.

Based on these results we created a programme called ‘Mum’s Magic Hands’ drawing on emotional motivators, nudges and triggers to drive sustained behaviour change. The results had a positive effect on mothers’ handwashing practice, increasing both awareness and practice of handwashing with soap.

At World Water Week this past Sunday, Alma Migens Cuenta, Oxfam, Aarti Daryanani, Lifebuoy and Murray Burt, UNHCR presented a sofa session, convened by the Global Handwashing Partnership, calling on all WASH and Humanitarian actors to prioritise handwashing behaviour change programmes in emergencies. They provided examples of how ‘Mums Magic hands’ has been applied across various contexts and why it is unique and more effective than functional communication, which has focused on health benefits. Listen to the recording here.

They called on donors to give more attention and investment to handwashing behaviour change programmes like Mum’s Magic Hands that have proven health outcomes, advocating for this to be a minimum standard in the sphere. The programme is also freely available to practitioners working in the humanitarian sector and downloadable on the Oxfam policy and practice website.

All actors – donors, NGOs, government, civil society, private sector – have a collective responsibility to achieve SDG 6.2 (access for all to sanitation and hygiene). The evidence exists and shows what it takes to sustain improved handwashing behaviour change in an emergency context. We can and must work together to protect those most vulnerable to disease from avoidable illness and death.


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