Every year on October 15th we celebrate Global Handwashing Day, dedicated to advocating for handwashing with soap as an easy, effective, and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives.
Last year, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, we all learned how critical handwashing is in the fight against disease, any infectious disease. And yet, it is out of reach for billions of people: 3 out of 10 people worldwide were unable to wash their hands within their homes because they did not have access to a hand hygiene facility (Joint Monitoring Programme, 2021).
The first Global Handwashing Day was held in 2008, and since then, it has been used to raise awareness about handwashing, build sinks and tippy taps, and demonstrate the value of washing your hands. The theme of the 2021 Global Handwashing Day is “Our future is at hand – let’s move forward together”. It calls for collective action to scale up hand hygiene efforts to achieve universal access and practice of hand hygiene.
The Global Handwashing Partnership works to develop and share knowledge to strengthen handwashing implementation in addition to build political commitment and trigger action to promote handwashing at local, national, and international levels, through initiatives such as Global Handwashing Day. A coalition of international stakeholders, the partnership includes organisations from many sectors, including private sector entities, academic institutions, multilateral and governmental agencies, as well as non-governmental and community-based organisations.
In addition to its impact on health, handwashing also benefits nutrition, education, equity, and the economic development of countries. The benefits of handwashing with soap can only be realised when handwashing is practiced consistently at all critical times. The two primary times to wash hands are after using the toilet and before contact with food. In addition, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend washing hands after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; after contact with an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; after handling pet food or pet treats; and after touching garbage.
Globally, handwashing with soap is rarely practiced as often as it needs to be, and poor handwashing is not only a problem in developing countries. Less than 20% of people globally wash their hands properly at critical times, even in places where soap and water are plentiful and handwashing is a relatively common practice. Although we have gotten used to using alcohol-based hand sanitizers during the pandemic, we should remember that if hands are visibly soiled, handwashing with soap is preferable, because sanitizers do not remove dirt.
© UNICEF/Dejongh. Burkina Faso, 2020. A mother is washing the hands of her baby, in the health center of Kaya, in the North of Burkina Faso
While having access to soap, water, and a place to wash hands is critical, as well as knowledge about how and when to wash hands, there is more to handwashing promotion: it also involves behaviour change. Other factors that come into play to motivate people to wash their hands include things such as social norms and habit formation, which takes time.
It is essential that governments, the private sector, civil society, and other stakeholders work together to promote handwashing with soap, both through handwashing promotion projects and advocacy efforts. Advocacy allows hygiene champions to influence public policy, public opinion, and investments. Hygiene is part of the SDG framework: goal 6 embraces hygiene, alongside water and sanitation. For SDG reporting, handwashing is measured by indicator 6.2.1: the proportion of population using safely managed sanitation services, including a handwashing facility with soap and water.
As the world moves into the new normal beyond the coronavirus pandemic, the Global Handwashing Partnership calls on:
- Governments to develop and fund country roadmaps and national hygiene strategies toward universal hand hygiene. These need to include a combination of policy, regulation, and behaviour change programs for hand hygiene.
- Donors to invest in national roadmaps, hygiene strategies, and research, as well as programs that are hygiene sensitive, promote behaviour change, and drive hand hygiene habits.
- Businesses to contribute toward resilient hand hygiene systems through partnerships, research, policies, financing, and innovative products and facilities, and promote hand hygiene within your workforce.
- Institutions to prioritize hand hygiene infrastructure, policies, and behaviour change programs within schools, healthcare facilities, workplaces, and public settings.
- Researchers to make hand hygiene research publicly available and translate complex findings into easy-to-use guidance or recommendations for implementers.
- Advocates to raise awareness on the importance of hand hygiene behaviour change as an essential part of health and development to influence political buy in.