My mother was sick for only one day before she died.
In much of the world, diarrhea is not fatal. But in my homeland, Bangladesh, it can be. Roughly 45,000 people there die from it each year. In 2014, my mother was one of them.
Throughout much of the developing world, serious diseases are linked to improper hygiene, poor drinking water and a general lack of sanitary awareness. Across the globe, however, many do not know this.
My own family did not pay much attention when my mother first fell ill. She had probably eaten unclean street food on her way home from work. We all dismissed it as “just diarrhea.” This ignorance is likely to haunt me for the rest of my life.
But it strengthened my decision to work to improve water, sanitation and hygiene – an international development program known collectively as WASH. I want to address these interrelated public health issues to make sure no one else loses their beloved like this. I decided to talk about WASH in Bangladesh’s many different communities.
Each day, 2.4 billion people live without bathrooms or outhouses. Millions of others who have them lack disposal and treatment systems. Many dispose of toilet waste by dumping it in local fresh water sources. In rapidly expanding cities, fecal sludge management represents a growing challenge, generating health and environmental risks. Today, water- and sanitation-related illnesses are a leading cause of death among children under age 5.
My relatives insisted that I “take some time for myself” and grieve, but I couldn’t stop thinking how my actions might prevent someone else from experiencing my sorrow. That’s why, four days after my mother’s death, I began conducting a health awareness campaign in the local sweepers’ community, known as the “Horizon Polli.”
Sweepers clean toilets and work in the sewerage system. I talked to many in the 3,000-member community, distributing posters and fliers on sanitation and hygiene and showing videos.
There are about 3.5 million to 5.5 million sweepers across Bangladesh. They are socially excluded, considered “untouchable.” In their isolation, they are deprived of healthy housing facilities and other civic amenities. As part of Bangladesh’s most neglected community; even their children have to attend separate schools. To me, it remains a disgrace that our society fails to recognize the importance of their job.
My day-long sanitary awareness workshop teaches people, among other things, how to properly wash their hands. The 7-step technique ensures that all parts of the hands and fingers are cleaned thoroughly. We also discuss how to filtrate water at home, and I explain the significance of cleanliness and hygiene maintenance.
One highlight of the WASH campaign is a “trashmob.” Roughly 750 sweepers competed to collect as much trash as possible. The “before and after” pictures of the trashmob were remarkable. A blind woman and her nine-year old son won, and received prize money.
To ensure that proper sanitation techniques become the social norm, I realized that I needed to teach school children. So I started to, with support from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Alumni Bangladesh Association. Working with a group of volunteers, we visited 30 schools, speaking with students, teachers, parents, staff and even the local street vendors.
Though hand washing might seem insignificant, I tried to show how it can be life-saving. Since then, I have brought the WASH campaign to many national and international platforms, including Global Changemakers, from 128 nations. I’ve also taught many high school students how to hold their own workshops.
This hygiene awareness needs to spread. I now intend to bring my hygiene talks to brothels. I recently conducted a health awareness session at a brothel of 1,000 people, including sex workers, pimps, madams and their families. I want to do this at Bangladesh’s 19 other legal brothels.
It is critical because sex workers usually live in unsanitary conditions, surrounded by garbage and used condoms. High rates of unprotected sex increase the risks of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Though challenging, there is a clear need to start raising awareness for these issues.
I now realize that these issues exist around the world. I recently moved to Malaysia, to study economics, and see how widespread WASH problems are.
If WASH is to be successful, it is essential that governments, businesses and activists work together to raise awareness and funds for sanitary improvements. For every $1 invested in sanitation, according to the World Health Organization, the economic return is $5.50. So is it is in businesses’ interest to invest in WASH.
I am optimistic that the combined efforts of governments, world leaders, businesses and advocates will help ensure clean water, sanitation and hygiene for everyone. As I know from personal experience -- even the smallest changes in personal hygiene habits can save lives.
Shomy Hasan Chowdhury is studying economics at Universiti Putra Malaysia. She has been working with WASH programs for the past six years. She is the co-founder of voluntary youth organization "Awareness 360."