The importance of hygiene and sanitation practices in healthy communities

Published: 5 April 2013 15:45 CET

By Joe Cropp, Australian Red Cross

“The children in the community were always getting sick,” says Mirriam, a mother of three. “They always had diarrhoea, colds and many sores on their skin.”

Mirriam’s village of Marumbo sits in a cove on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal. Surrounded by steep volcanic mountains to the rear, and rough, often impassable seas to the front, the small village is similar to many other remote communities throughout the Solomon Islands.

Diarrhoea, malaria, chest infections and skin diseases are rife in many of these villages. These high levels of illnesses predominantly result from the communities’ use of open water sources, often contaminated by animals or by the villagers themselves, and a lack of understanding around basic hygiene practices and health. The Solomon Islands also has one of the highest incidences of malaria outside Africa.

These problems are compounded by ‘the tensions’ – a period of civil war that stretched between 1998 and 2003, which severely affected infrastructure and, as a result, the population’s health. Reaching basic health facilities often requires days of travel, and limited medical supplies often run out due to high demand.

To help tackle these problems, Solomon Islands Red Cross developed a community-based health programme, with support from Australian Red Cross and funding from the Australian Government’s overseas aid program, AusAID. Known as Tugeda Iumi Waka fo Helti Komuniti (Together You and Me Work for Healthy Communities), the programme provides communities with the knowledge, skills and long-term support to improve health and hygiene practices, and builds on people’s abilities to address and resolve their own problems.

Volunteers trained by Red Cross educate their own communities, using participatory learning techniques and a series of visual aids to overcome literacy issues.

Training is also provided on efficient management of water resources and the construction of improved toilets. When this ‘software’ is in place, Red Cross provides necessary ‘hardware’, such as tanks and construction materials, which families and communities then use to build basic infrastructure.

The first three-year programme was recently completed in 22 remote communities on the island of Malaita and the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal. Success is evident in local clinics. Where once basic medicines would only last a couple of weeks, now the supplies last for months, as healthy communities no longer turn to them for treatment of basic illnesses.

There have also been unexpected benefits. After years of conflict between the islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal, strong relationships are building between the Red Cross health team members, who come from the different regions, and the once warring communities are starting to work together.

The programme has also resulted in a change in the gender relationships. Where traditionally women have been marginalised in many of these communities, the programme has actively worked to include them as equals, involving them as staff and volunteers. This has helped to develop a new-found respect for the women’s skills and knowledge.

For Mirriam, one of the community health volunteers, the most important success is reflected in the lives of her children and the people of Marumbo. “Now our children are healthy,” she says. “Now our community is healthy.”