Donate to help children in Gaza →

A Child’s Voice Can Save a Life: WASH Clubs in Uganda

WASH Clubs - Uganda - Image 1 - Web Hero.jpg

The Race Against COVID-19

It’s March 2020, and schools in Uganda are just about to close because of a new disease called “COVID-19”. A young boy hauls a bucket of water to the front of a schoolyard in Kampala. He lines it up in a row with a half-dozen other buckets, each with a socially distanced line of masked children waiting a short distance away. When the last bucket is in place, he raises his arms and everyone holds their breath. With a shout, he drops his arms, and the race is on!

Each child runs to the bucket in front of them, grabs a bar of soap, and goes through the World Health Organization (WHO) handwashing protocol, scrubbing their hands thoroughly with soapy water for thirty seconds before racing back to the end of the line while another child runs forward. The game is “Handwashing Tag,” and it’s one of the activities the local WASH Club is running to teach children about water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) so they can protect themselves from infection.

Peer Educators Protect Their Communities

56% of Uganda’s population is under 18 years old. Right To Play has been working since 2001 to help children and youth in refugee settlements and impoverished neighbourhoods to grow up safe and healthy. It’s a difficult task – many do not have access to clean water for drinking or handwashing, and sanitation infrastructure like toilets and sewage systems are available only in certain areas. Infectious diseases are the most common reason for lost schooldays in sub-Saharan Africa, and COVID-19 threatened to make that burden even worse.

“Since the inception of the club, the sanitation and hygiene of the school has improved. Today, our school compound and latrines are clean and pupils have grasped the practice of washing their hands.” - Christine Nansikombi, WASH Club school patron

The Kampala WASH project is part of a network of Right To Play-supported WASH Clubs in schools across the country that run fun and engaging activities that teach children how to protect their health. The clubs serve some of the most vulnerable children in Uganda, including refugees and impoverished local children living in slum-like conditions. When COVID-19 was first announced, the WASH Clubs used their experience and expertise with disease prevention to reach more than a thousand students at local schools with handwashing training in the week before they closed.

The clubs continued to reach out to children even after schools closed. Peer educators gathered small groups of their fellow children outdoors, masked and socially distanced, and used games to teach handwashing techniques, social distancing, and other measures that could help them protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.

WASH Clubs - Uganda - Image 1 - Web.jpg
WASH Clubs in Uganda use games to teach children the six-step WHO handwashing protocol that has been used worldwide to slow the transmission of COVID-19. They also help maintain community resources like accessible water and soap supplies at local schools so everyone can wash their hands.

Children Speak Up for a Safer Environment

The games weren’t just about changing the attendees’ own behaviours. Children who played the games were encouraged to share their knowledge with their friends and families, so they could also benefit. In such a young country, children have the power and opportunity to cut through rumours and misinformation. Over the past twenty years, WASH Clubs have used this credibility to share information about taboo subjects like HIV and menstruation with youth. With COVID-19, they were able to bring their practical experience to challenge the fears swirling through their communities.

The effectiveness of the clubs’ health education is reinforced by reaching out to families in multiple ways at once. Along with leading games for children, Junior leaders from the WASH Clubs join community radio programs to share tips with families on how to stay safe and sensitize parents to the importance of the information their children are bringing home from the clubs. These initiatives have been a powerful tool for changing parents’ attitudes about taboo topics like menstruation and birth control.

WASH Clubs - Uganda - Image 2 - Web.jpg
The clubs create handwashing stations around the community and keeps them stocked with clean water and soap. In some communities in Uganda, less than 10% of the population has access to safe water and sewage systems.

Uganda is still facing a long fight against COVID-19. As of late 2021, only 4% of the population has been vaccinated, and a spike in infections and deaths over the summer has not been brought completely under control by the government. Schools remain closed. An over-burdened and under-resourced healthcare system means many Ugandans cannot access care when they need it.

“We had no water to wash our hands. But with the introduction of the club in our school, we make sure that water is always available in the handwashing cans.” - Reachel, WASH Club Junior Leader

The preventative health information the WASH Clubs share is vital for very marginalized families to protect themselves. Every infection prevented is potentially a life saved. It’s a big task for children, but the Junior Leaders at the WASH Clubs are showing that they are ready for it.