The Vicious Cycle Between Poor Hygiene and Poverty


SEATTLE — Imagine lacking the ability to turn on a tap and find clean drinking water, or not being able to go into a store and purchase a bar of soap. For millions of people living below the poverty line, this is a very real, alarming reality. A July 2017 report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF revealed that three in 10 people (2.1 billion worldwide) don’t have access to clean water at home, and six in 10 lack safely managed sanitation. The report exposed the connection between hygiene and poverty, with a drastic discrepancy in the access and utilization of soap from country to country. Fifteen percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to soap for handwashing, versus 76 percent in Western Asia and Northern Africa.

Diarrhea, one of the leading causes of child mortality in poverty-ridden areas, is mainly attributed to a lack of safe hygiene practices. Often seen as a simple inconvenience in developed countries like the United States, diarrhea actually kills 361,000 children under five each year. A lack of adequate sanitation and water quality can be responsible for other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid. On a global scale, 800 children die every day of preventable diseases caused by a lack of sanitation, hygiene and clean water.

UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake believes in the management of safe sanitation practices in disadvantaged societies to help break the cycle between hygiene and poverty. “Safe water, effective sanitation and hygiene are critical to the health of every child and every community – and thus are essential to building stronger, healthier and more equitable societies,” Lake said.

Less than half of the schools in Eastern and Southern Africa have acceptable water and sanitation. This is especially detrimental to girls, who miss school and even drop out when they start menstruating due to a lack of clean and separate toilet facilities.

A lack of accessible clean water plagues people all over the world, with the task of fetching fresh water in developing countries usually falling to women. Women and girls collectively spend 200 million hours retrieving water every day. For younger girls, that’s less time spent going to school and studying, and for women, less time working and saving money in order to break the cycle of poverty.

A study in Tanzania showed a 12 percent increase in school attendance when water was accessible within 15 minutes of a student’s home. When it comes to finding a job, a combination of poor hygiene and poverty can lead to low self-esteem and difficulty going to interviews for both men and women.

The humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide responds to emergency health and water crises in troubled countries and works with governments to provide long-term solutions and awareness for improved hygiene practices. Working alongside the community itself to educate people on safe hygiene and sanitation, Concern Worldwide also builds latrines, rainwater-collecting systems and wells.

According to UNICEF, progress in the areas of sanitation and hygiene is “closely related to that of child mortality, primary education and poverty eradication.” The organization’s water, sanitation and hygiene team — known as WASH — works in more than 100 different countries to improve hygiene practices and sanitation services. In 2016, WASH helped provide 14 million people with clean water and more than 11 million with toilets. UNICEF works to promote hygiene education for school children as well, with hopes that they will take the information back home to their families and communities to create a lasting solution to poor hygiene and poverty.

Katherine Gallagher
Photo: Flickr


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