WASH: a blessing for youth in the Soutpansberg

Dr Jenny Botha, EWT’s People in Conservation Manager, jennyb@ewt.org.za

“Such a blessing,” the young girl murmured as she received samples of reusable sanitary pads as part of a Water, Health, and Hygiene (WASH) project the EWT is implementing in Kutama, a vibrant area consisting of nine villages situated at the foot of the majestic Soutpansberg mountains in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve. Despite most residents being innovative and self-driven, unemployment levels are high, and many families struggle financially, as is common throughout South Africa. Those who are fortunate enough to have a job often work far from home, leaving children in the care of grandparents or other caregivers.

Despite progress in addressing global water and sanitation deficits, in 2017 approximately 1.6 million people died of diarrheal diseases. Many of these disease are spread through contaminated hands. Safe water, sanitation and hygiene underpin human, animal, and environmental health. Yet millions still lack access to clean water and basic hygiene products and information on germ transmission and risks to human and environmental health is often lacking or inaccurate.

Washing with soap is an effective and cost effective way to save lives. Moreover, by reducing exposure to a range of infectious diseases, it also reduces absenteeism through illness from work and school.

Discussing women’s health and hygiene with secondary school learners in Kutama, Limpopo. Photo credit: The EWT

With over 80% of households in Kutama deriving a monthly income of less than R3,200, purchasing basic necessities is challenging, and, as with many communities in South Africa, sanitary pads are unaffordable for many women and girls.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) started the WASH project in 2019 as part of an integrated water conservation project in the Soutpansberg in partnership with the Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN). In the first year, we developed and piloted interactive lessons and teaching aids on germ transmission and hand washing, which were implemented alongside primary school educators in the classroom, reaching over 700 learners.

Primary School Germ Transmission Activity in Kutama, Limpopo

The timing of this project was fortuitous, for, in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit South Africa. Regular handwashing has always been critically important to reduce the spread of serious infections, diarrhoea, and other illnesses, especially in children. However, this simple activity and other stringent hygiene measures have become a global imperative. In 2020 we introduced additional curriculum-based learning materials to approximately 475 primary school learners to reinforce handwashing and related health messages in fun, interactive ways, and in 2021, we reached a further 800 learners and their teachers. Educators were provided with resource packs to enable them to continue implementing the germ transmission and handwashing lessons to learners on an ongoing basis.

To support secondary schools in Kutama, we developed educational resources on women’s health and hygiene and held focus group discussions with 440 girls from grades 8-11 in two secondary schools in collaboration with their Life Orientation educators. We also gave each learner and some educators and school staff reusable sanitary pads to try.

Apart from assisting families financially, quality reusable sanitary pads can last for up to three years. It has been estimated that the average woman will use approximately 11,000 sanitary pads during her lifetime. Globally, municipalities and sanitation personnel are grappling to cope with the waste generated from sanitary materials, which ends up in landfills or flushed into sewerage systems, where it causes major management headaches. Substituting disposable sanitary pads or tampons with reusable pads or menstrual cups costs far less and substantially reduces the impacts of waste on water and the environment.

Our aim going forward is to gradually roll out similar WASH projects in other primary and secondary schools across all the EWT’s project sites in South Africa. Through our Education for Sustainable Development project, the Guardians of the Future, we will continue working with educators to co-develop additional curriculum-aligned interactive teaching aids and educational resources to support teaching in subjects such as Natural Science and Technology, Life Orientation, Social Sciences, and other subjects. Through these and similar interventions, we aim to support schools in developing capable, confident, and scientifically literate youth who understand the interwoven connections between people and nature and the value of collective efforts to reduce our environmental footprints and live more sustainably.

Learners walking home from school in Kutama

Thank you to the Coca-cola Foundation for sponsoring this project under its Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) and to the Ford Foundation for ensuring that we can get to schools and other project sites easily, no matter where they are.