Changing Planet

Global Handwashing Day: Reflecting on handwashing under the Ethiopian sun  

One hot afternoon last year, there was dancing and singing as a young girl named Nigisti stepped forward to wash her hands. Other students at the Abi Adi School in Trigray, Ethiopia stood in line behind her, grinning widely as they awaited their turn.

As Nigisti scrubbed the soap between her fingers, the school’s principal turned to me and said, “Most of our students don’t have a place to wash their hands at home.” She beamed as she proudly continued, “but now, they have a place to clean up at school!” The handwashing station had only recently been installed in the school and meant a lot more than just clean hands for the smiling kids.

It’s easy for those of us with access to a sink and soap to overlook just how important the simple act of handwashing with soap is. However, in areas like the one in rural Ethiopia where Abi Adi School is located, handwashing is a cost-effective investment that removes barriers to education, nutrition, economic opportunity, and equity. Improving access to soap and clean water could play a significant role in global disease prevention and development: Research shows that 47 percent of diarrheal diseases are preventable through handwashing[1] and 16 percent of respiratory infections are preventable just through handwashing with soap.[2] In addition, we know that national handwashing behavior change programs have provided an estimated 92-fold return on investment.[3]

In an era when new “life-changing” technology is emerging every day, research suggests that the simple act of handwashing with soap may be the single most efficient and cost-effective way to improve and save lives globally.

For Nigisti and her schoolmates, having a place to wash their hands with soap means less disease – and that means more time spent reading, writing, and learning in school. It also reduces healthcare costs, which means there is more money for school uniforms and books. As Nigisti and her female classmates get older, having a place to wash up ensures they can remain comfortably in class when they reach the age of menstruation. Ultimately, hand washing represents an opportunity for the students to create the future they want.

Nigisti and her classmates are lucky. They have a place to wash their hands, the education to understand when to clean up, and the knowledge of how they should be properly lathering with soap. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to basic handwashing facilities and soap. In 2015, most countries in Africa had less than 50 percent coverage of basic handwashing facilities.[4] Nearly 4,000 children continue to die daily from diseases that could be prevented by the simple act of handwashing with soap.[5]

But unlike so many of the problems in our world today, there is a solution to the global handwashing problem. We can make sure that other children have the same access to handwashing facilities and soap that Nigisti and her classmates do. It’s simple and cost-effective—handwashing can save lives!


YOU CAN HELP! October 15th is Global Handwashing Day. Here are three easy ways you can get involved:

  1. Give a hand to help spread the word — Problems can only be solved when people know they exist. Post an “I Give a Hand” selfie on social to raise awareness of this issue. Click HERE to learn more and upload your photo.
  2. Buy Soapply — Helping solve the global handwashing problem is as easy as upgrading the soap next to your sink. Every time you purchase Soapply, a portion of the sale goes to fund water, sanitation, and hygiene efforts to make handwashing possible around the world (currently, Soapply’s impact is focused in Tigray, Ethiopia). Full disclosure, I’m the founder of Soapply so I’m biased. 
  3. Donate — Ensure NGOs already making a difference are able to continue their work.  Charity: Water, Splash, and Plan International USA are all doing incredible work in this space.

[1] Curtis V, Cairncross S. E ect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: a systematic review. Lancet Infect Dis, 2003 May; 3(5):275-81.

[2] Rabie T, Curtis V. Handwashing and risk of respiratory infections: a quantitative systematic review. Trop Med Int Health, 2006 Mar; 11(3): 258-67.

[3] Townsend J, Greenland K, Curtis V. Costs of diarrhoea and acute respiratory infection attributable to not handwashing: the cases of India and China. Trop Med Int Health, 2017 Jan; 22(1):74-81.

[4] Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Baselines. WHO, UNICEF, 2017. https:/ Sanitation_and_Hygiene_2017.pdf




Mera is the founder and CEO of Soapply. She has conducted research internationally, worked for the Smithsonian Institution, multiple academic institutions, and was the past managing editor of Mission Blue. She is dedicated to the communication and dissemination of scientific information and is passionate about elevating public awareness about the social and environmental issues.

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