With inputs from Sreepoorna Majumdar:
“My name is Manasa. I am from Purahalli village in Karnataka’s Kolar district,” begins Manasa, a fifth standard student at the Government Primary School – Purahalli, and a sanitation and hygiene champion who’s helping keep her community and school safe during the global COVID-19 pandemic. “My hobbies are playing with my friends, reading books and working with a team.”
What’s the team this 10-year-old is talking about? She’s talking about herself and her two friends Meghana (10), and Parisara (12) and the work they’ve cut out for themselves in making their school healthy and hygienic.
“Handwashing was never important for us. We would be very casual with it, and never followed the proper steps to wash our hands,” says Parisara. But in recent times, she has learned about the critical importance of handwashing to keep COVID-19 at bay.
The girls belong to a small community that has historically struggled to meet the proper standards of hygiene and sanitation. Open defecation was once a common practice here, even among people who had toilets built in their homes via the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. For a lot of people, the toilets doubled as storerooms. When asked, convention and norm were the reasons given for the continued habits.
In 2016, with the help of Save the Children, Manasa worked extensively to garner community support in resolving these challenges. She started a water, sanitation and hygiene committee in her school and began working to promote toilet usage in her locality. She organised plays, games and activities to disseminate information on sanitation and hygiene. Progress was slow but steady. It took her nearly a year to convince her parents to use the toilet at home. Now, the urgency of the work presses on more than ever.
“Before the lockdown, we had a routine life: the challenges we faced largely had to do with maintenance of drainage systems and finding clean and pure drinking water,” says Manasa. “But after lockdown, things have gotten much worse. Now, poor families are finding it hard to earn money for food.”
On a personal level, she is unable to attend school and is finding it difficult to be cooped up at home all the time. “Lockdown makes us sit at home without learning. There are no classes, no holiday fun, no competition. I can’t even write my examinations because the system has changed,” she says. “It’s a scary situation.”
The challenges don’t deter her, though. Since her childhood, Manasa has ignored people who told her she shouldn’t lead, because she was a girl. Instead, she’d carry on and achieve her aspirations in doing community service. Even amidst the challenges, she’s kept alive the work she’s doing to promote proper handwashing where she can.
And she refuses to give up on her ambitions, either. She looks forward to the lockdown ending and to beginning afresh at school. “I want to train and become a police officer when I grow up. I make sure I’m doing my exercises, running and reading the required general knowledge books, even now, to prepare.”
As we exit the lockdown, and restrictions begin lifting—albeit partially—the opening up of schools is not too far down the line, especially given that children from vulnerable communities lack access to digital learning tools and infrastructure. But the government must ensure that children’s safety is the top priority when it comes down to it. Together, the government, community and civil society can work to preserve, hone and nurture the inspiring sanitation champions’ dreams! Agree?
If you have a message of solidarity and support for Manasa and her friends, or suggestions on what schools can do to reopen safely, publish today with #EveryOneCounts. #EveryOneCounts is a joint initiative between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Save the Children and Youth Ki Awaaz to create conversations around how in the fight against the coronavirus, everyone counts, and every voice, every action can make a difference.