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UNICEF report on faith, education and water

UNICEF report on faith, education and water

The following text is taken from pages 36-39 of the document ‘Partnering with Religious Communities for Children’ produced by UNICEF in 2012. The document quotes from two papers presented to ARC’s 2009 ‘Faith In Water’ conference, one being Water supply, sanitation and hygiene facilities and related education in faith-based schools by Annemarieke Mooijman and Christine Sijbesma (M&S), and the other Water, Hygiene and Sanitation in Jewish Tradition by Dr Mirele B. Goldsmith (MB). You can read these and other conference papers in full by downloading ARC’s Faith In Water book as a pdf.

Other useful links can be found at the bottom of this page.

Water, sanitation and hygiene

Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services coupled with poor hygiene practices affect millions of children every day through illness, death, impoverishment and lack of opportunities for development. Parents are less productive due to illness and time taken collecting water and thus less able to provide adequately for their children’s needs. When schools lack private and decent sanitation facilities, girls in particular are denied access to education. In response UNICEF focuses on supporting sanitation and hygiene behaviour change as well as improving access to water supply. Data show that the poorest are most likely to lack water supply and sanitation, particularly the latter, which is one of the most inequitably distributed interventions. Inequities in access to water and sanitation are made worse by humanitarian disasters and fragile contexts.

Why partner with religious communities for water, sanitation and hygiene programming?

“Linking faith with construction of water facilities and toilets in schools does not sound like an obvious link, yet it is important. Water plays a central role in many religions and beliefs around the world: source of life, it represents (re)birth. Water cleans the body, and by extension purifies it, and these two main qualities confer a highly symbolic (even sacred) status to water. Water is therefore a key element in ceremonies and religious rites. This is reflected in the way people use water, in the way they design water systems and the need for accessibility of water for cleansing after toilet use or washing hands.” (M&S, p2)

Water is the most essential element for human survival and as such has a prominent place in many of the world’s faith traditions. Cleansing with water is a nearly universal metaphor for spiritual cleansing, expressed in rituals such as bathing in the Ganges River for Hindus, washing before prayers in a mosque or baptism in the Christian tradition.

Clean water is the foundation of good hygiene and sanitation, which many religious traditions promote with prescriptions about waste management and cleansing rituals before spiritual functions. For example, within Hindu society people “must defecate beyond the distance of an arrow shot from their home, and never in a temple enclosure, at the borders of a river, pond or spring, or in a public place. During the act, Muslims cannot face towards Mecca and Hindus must not face celestial bodies, a temple, priest or holy tree.” (M&S, p1) Jewish law outlines specific practices regarding hand washing as well as dealing with human waste. (MB, Faith in Water, p.67) Consulting with religious authorities to learn about the religious attitudes and corresponding behaviours regarding water, sanitation and hygiene practices such as hand washing can go a long way in developing appropriate and utilized systems.

“Water symbolizes God’s presence, which is why Krishna says, ‘I am the taste in water’.” — Bhagavad Gita 7:8
“With globally about 64% of schools being faith-related, there are unique opportunities and benefits from linking spiritual learning with learning on water, sanitation, hygiene and the environment, and the improvement of water and sanitation facilities in schools.” (M&S, p11)

The availability of good water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools – and education about these issues – is critical for facilitating children’s right to water, sanitation and hygiene as well as their right to education. Loss of school days due to diarrhoea, intestinal worms and other illnesses caused by poor water and hygiene greatly affects learning and development. Girls and female teachers also lose days due to the lack of facilities that take menstrual hygiene into consideration. Given that, as noted above, a majority of schools are faith-related it is vital that these faith communities provide facilities and effective water, sanitation and hygiene education in their schools.

A boy drinks water from a hand pump (Bangladesh)


  • Religious leaders in Indonesia helped develop and implement a hygiene and health project, the ‘Clean Friday Campaign’, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Institute Agama Islam Negeri Ar-Raniry (Ar-Raniry State Islamic Religion Institute), CARE International, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. Ulama (religious leaders) were instrumental in crafting health messages positively linked to Quranic verses and Islamic teachings on basic hygiene and personal cleanliness. They are committed to spreading these behaviour change messages in their communities through their Friday prayers, community meetings and speeches. (United States Agency for International Development, ‘The Role of Religious Leaders and Communities in Development Efforts in Asia and the Middle East’, USAID Issue Brief, Washington, DC, November 2009, p. 6.)
  • In 2009 during a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe there were a large number of deaths among members of the Apostolic faith, who do not accept modern medical treatment. UNICEF led major advocacy efforts to increase the acceptance rate of treatment. UNICEF also trained 96 religious leaders and produced a programme on cholera hosted by a popular talk show hostess that was shown on national television and reached an estimated 300,000 people with appropriate hygiene messages.
  • A 2009 Religion and Health Project evaluation in Bhutan indicated that a sanitation and water project was effective and relevant for improving and promoting health, hygiene and sanitation in religious institutions and their neighbouring communities. The project included training religious health workers with the skills to maintain and sustain the improved health and hygiene conditions in religious schools.
  • In 2010 the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), which works with the major religious traditions to develop their own environmental programmes based on their core teachings, beliefs and practices, joined the Call to Action for WASH in Schools campaign led by UNICEF. The objective of the Call to Action is to realize a vision where all children go to school and all schools provide a safe, healthy and comfortable environment where children grow, learn and thrive. As part of the campaign a global virtual library of WASH in Schools experiences has been compiled through the leadership of ARC and with the voluntary assistance of WASH in Schools professionals from 39 countries. It is available at .

What can religious communities do to promote water, sanitation and hygiene?

  • Highlight the importance of water in faith traditions, particularly as it relates to worship and rituals such as cleansing, purifying, baptizing, etc. Religious leaders can use such opportunities to reinforce the need for clean water and good sanitation and challenge attitudes and practices that run counter to good sanitation and hygiene.
  • Provide clean water and well-maintained hand washing and sanitation facilities in places of worship, religious schools and other facilities to model good practice for the community. In emergencies, these may be used as centres for water storage and distribution.
  • Include lessons about the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene and good practices in the curriculum of religious and faith-related schools.
  • Conduct public awareness and, particularly with religious youth, peer-to-peer campaigns illustrating the importance of and demonstrating good water, sanitation and hygiene practices.
  • Utilize religious media, such as radio and television, to disseminate messages and public education regarding the importance of good water, sanitation and hygiene practices such as hand washing, clean toilets and availability of clean water, particularly in schools and other places where children assemble.
  • Include water, sanitation and hygiene education in worship, ritual and holiday services, especially with the assistance of community-based religious health organizations.
  • Advise humanitarian organizations on their communities’ principles and practices regarding water – such as hand washing, sanitation and hygiene considerations around defecation, menstrual hygiene, etc. – in order to develop appropriate and effective interventions.

Useful links

‘Partnering with Religious Communities for Children’ The full version of the UNICEF document, downloadable as a pdf.

UNICEF the official website of the UNICEF organisation.

Faith In Water book Downloadable pdf version of the ARC-produced collection of papers delivered at the Faith In Water conference, Salisbury, 2009.

WASH in Schools Resource-pasked UNICEF website section about the international WASH in Schools initiative.

WASH in Schools Mapping project lively website of the WASH In Schools programme including country by country profiles of what is being done.

Raising Even More Clean Hands Downloadable PDF version of the WASH In Schools programme’s ‘call to action’ from 2012.

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