Each year on October 15th, millions of people celebrate Global Handwashing Day. This year, in keeping with the Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030, the theme is “Clean Hands for All,” with an emphasis on handwashing with soap. Clean hands for all means that all communities have access to soap and water to wash their hands. However, for those who lack land tenure—which is roughly 75% of people across the globe—access to resources to partake in this practice is extremely limited.
Handwashing with soap is tried-and-true, requiring only soap and a bit of running water. It’s a low-cost and effective intervention for preventing diseases like diarrhea, which is the leading cause of death for children younger than five, killing over 1,300 each day (UNICEF 2018). Without proper land documentation, very few people have the opportunity to install basic handwashing stations, leaving control of their personal health and wellbeing in the hands of others. The installation of hygiene facilities requires finances, access to markets and ownership of private spaces—all of which renters and others living in shared housing do not have. Informal settlers and people experiencing homelessness are at an even greater disadvantage, as studies and statistics on hygiene are typically conducted within households. An estimated 10 million people in 17 countries lack handwashing facilities “in the home” (UNICEF/WHO 2019). That this number does not account for those in alternate and informal living conditions makes the statistic even more unsettling.
Ideally, people wash their hands at four critical times: before handling the baby, before cooking and eating, and after using the toilet or handling feces. But defining these critical times for handwashing can be detrimental for people’s health, wellbeing and economic outcomes. The surfaces and spaces that we come into contact with on a daily basis require more frequent handwashing than just before meals or after using the bathroom. Parks, buses and public spaces are breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, and call attention to the need for hygiene facilities outside of the home. Public hygiene facilities are not necessarily new; handwashing stations at vantage points have long been used as an intervention during disease outbreaks like cholera and Ebola. Revisiting this idea, public handwashing stations can serve as a preventive measure to disrupt transmission pathways and can be further seen as an equalizer. By placing handwashing stations at vantage points, people are given access to the resources necessary for basic hygiene practices, regardless of recognition of tenure or socioeconomic status. Such public facilities help to combat the inequalities in access to proper handwashing facilities that put individuals and communities at higher risk for diseases.
Still, public handwashing stations require land on which to be installed, not to mention connection to clean and regular water service to be functional. While these might seem like issues that only pertain to the tenure insecure, disease does not show prejudice. From slum settlements to established communities, pathogens are transmitted in a way that affects everyone. Handwashing—or a lack thereof—is a global issue, and access to hygiene stations through vantage points is key to eliminating WASH-related discrimination experienced by marginalized and vulnerable groups. Today and every day following, join Solid Ground as we advocate for access to land as a means of ensuring clean hands for everyone, everywhere.