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Dominica struggles to recover from devastating storm Erika

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View of the Macoucherie river in Dominica after the Tropical Storm Erika Photo: Courtesy of Prime Minister of Dominica

The night of 26 August began as any other night for Mary Fontaine, her husband and their two children. The family live in the south-eastern community of Petite Savanne, in Dominica, a 290 sq. mile island country in the eastern Caribbean.

The Fontaines were aware of the weather forecast – which had warned of showers associated with Tropical Storm Erika, and Mary secured the family home. Such weather systems are common during Atlantic hurricane season – Erika would be the fifth tropical storm of the 2015 season. The island was at the height of a drought, and Mary was prepared for these much-needed showers.

But the more than 71,000 residents of this small, mountainous island were not prepared for the rain that pounded Dominica for 12 hours on Thursday 27 August, as Erika made its slow exit. All told, 12.64 inches of rain fell in that short period.

Disruption
As morning broke across Dominica, the full scale of the devastation became apparent. Landslides and rock falls had covered villages and blocked major roads. More than 12 major rivers had broken their banks, causing severe flooding and taking out vital bridges, disrupting water, electricity and telecommunication services.

Links with the outside world were cut, as flood waters and debris covered the tarmac at the main commercial airport in the east of the country, as well as the smaller landing strip in the capital, Roseau.

“I was roused from my sleep, and, when I got outside, it was just water, water, water everywhere,” recalls Mary. “I’ve been here all my life but never saw anything like this. It was disaster all around.” She frantically tried to account for family members who live in neighbouring houses.

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Mary Fontaine (left) who lives in the south-eastern community of Petite Savanne in Dominica survived tropical storm Erika. Her brother and his two sons are missing. © UNICEF Eastern Caribbean/2015/B.Henry

Devastation
Petite Savanne was hit hard. The community is home to 753 people. Eleven of the 20 confirmed dead and 21 of the 35 residents reported missing call that ravaged district home.  Among the missing are Mary’s brother and his two sons. Her niece was located, safe.

Devastation in the close-knit community is so widespread that the government has declared Petite Savanne and eight other communities special disaster areas. A decision was later taken to evacuate Petite Savanne and three other affected communities. All but a handful of residents in the communities have now said farewell to their homes.

Long-time resident of Petite Savanne Urban Baron described the scene as “worse than a war zone”.

“More than 50 houses were on the verge of collapse, and there were landslides everywhere,” said Urban. He described people digging through mud to free those who had been trapped under fallen houses. In many cases, the only tools were their bare hands.

Recovery
The road to recovery for Mary and the other residents of Petite Savanne – and the nearly 17,000 other residents of the island who have been affected severely by the storm – will be long and uncertain. Roads and bridges will be repaired, but emotional scars may run deep, in the island dubbed the ‘nature isle’ of the Caribbean.

The government has appealed for international assistance, and pledges are coming in.

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Supplies provided by UNICEF being packed in Barbados to be brought to Dominica. © UNICEF Eastern Caribbean/2015/D.Williams

UNICEF has so far dispatched 4,000 water purification tablets, more than 500 boxes of adult hygiene kits and 100 infant hygiene kits to the most affected areas. The organization is currently working with the Ministry of Education to ascertain the extent of damage to the education sector, ahead of the scheduled 7 September start of the school year.

Patrick Knight is UNICEF Eastern Caribbean Communication Specialist

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Dominica: el trabajo por recuperarse tras la devastadora tormenta Erika

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Vista del río Macoucherie afectado por la tormenta Erika en Dominica. (Foto: Cortesía del Primer Ministro de Dominica)

La noche del 26 de agosto comenzó como cualquier otra para Mary Fontaine, su esposo y sus dos hijos. La familia vive en la comunidad de Petite Savanne, en el sudeste de Dominica, un país insular de 750 kilómetros cuadrados en el Caribe oriental.

La familia Fontaine era consciente de la previsión meteorológica que advertía de lluvias provocadas por la tormenta tropical Erika, por lo que Mary aseguró la casa en la que vive con su familia. Estos fenómenos meteorológicos son comunes durante la temporada de huracanes en el Atlántico y, de hecho, Erika sería la quinta tormenta tropical de la temporada 2015. El país estaba pasando por una grave sequía, por lo que Mary se preparó para recibir estas lluvias tan necesarias.

Pero los más de 71.000 residentes de esta pequeña y montañosa isla no estaban preparados para la lluvia que azotaría Dominica durante 12 horas seguidas del jueves 27 de agosto. En total, 12,64 pulgadas de lluvia cayeron en este período de tiempo.

Interrupción de servicios
A medida que amanecía en Dominica, el nivel de la devastación se hacía evidente. Los derrumbes y caídas de rocas habían cubierto aldeas y bloqueado algunas de las carreteras principales. Más de doce grandes ríos se habían desbordado, causando graves inundaciones, inutilizando puentes vitales para la población y afectando a los servicios de electricidad, agua y telecomunicaciones.

Los vínculos con el mundo exterior quedaron cortados desde el momento en que las inundaciones y los escombros cubrieron el asfalto del principal aeropuerto comercial en el este del país, así como la pista de aterrizaje más pequeña en Roseau, la capital.

“Me desperté, y cuando salí de casa, sólo había agua, agua, agua por todas partes”, recuerda Mary. “He vivido aquí toda mi vida, pero nunca vi nada como esto. Ha sido un gran desastre en toda la zona”. Mary trató desesperadamente de contactar con sus familiares que viven en las casas vecinas.

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Mary Fontaine (a la izquierda), quien vive en la comunidad de Petite Savanne, sobrevivió a la tormenta. Su hermano y los dos hijos de él están desaparecidos. © UNICEF Eastern Caribbean/2015/B.Henry

Devastación
Petite Savanne fue golpeada con fuerza. Esta comunidad es el hogar de 753 personas. Once de las veinte personas muertas confirmadas y 21 de las 35 desaparecidas vivían en este desolado distrito. Entre los desaparecidos están el hermano de Mary y los dos hijos de él. Su sobrina fue localizada y se encuentra bien.

La devastación en esta comunidad está tan extendida que el Gobierno ha declarado Petite Savanne y otras ocho comunidades como zonas especiales de desastre. La decisión fue tomada después de evacuar Petite Savanne y otras tres comunidades afectadas. Todos los vecinos, excepto unos pocos residentes, ya han dicho adiós a sus hogares.

Urban Baron, quien reside desde hace tiempo en Petite Savanne, describe el escenario como “peor que una zona de guerra”.

“Más de 50 casas estaban al borde del colapso, y había deslizamientos de tierra por todas partes”, asegura. Describe cómo la gente cavaba en el barro para liberar a quienes habían quedado atrapados bajo sus casas. En muchos casos, las únicas herramientas que tenían eran sus propias manos.

Recuperación
El camino hacia la recuperación de Mary y sus vecinos en Petite Savanne -y de las casi 17.000 personas en la isla afectadas gravemente por la tormenta- será largo e incierto. Carreteras y puentes serán reparados, pero las cicatrices emocionales pueden perdurar por más tiempo en esta isla conocida como ‘la isla de la naturaleza’ del Caribe.

El Gobierno ha hecho un llamamiento a la ayuda internacional, y la ayuda está llegando.

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Suministros provistos por UNICEF fueron distribuidos desde Barbados para ser trasladados a Dominica. © UNICEF Eastern Caribbean/2015/D.Williams

UNICEF ha enviado hasta ahora 4.000 tabletas de purificación de agua, más de 500 cajas con kits de higiene para adultos y 100 kits de higiene infantil a las zonas más afectadas. Ahora, la organización trabaja con el Ministerio de Educación para determinar la extensión del daño al sector educativo, antes del inicio del curso escolar que estaba previsto para el próximo 7 de septiembre.


Patrick Knight es Especialista de Comunicación en UNICEF Caribe Oriental.

(Traducido a español por Marcos González Díaz, de la Oficina Regional de UNICEF para América Latina y el Caribe)

Displaced Iraqi children from Mosul now living in Baherka Camp in northern Iraq.

An uncertain future for the children of Iraq

Leaving the departures terminal in Baghdad airport is like walking into an oven. It is over 50 degrees. I haven’t been to Baghdad for three years. When I last left, I thought the country was on the right track.

Things have, however, taken a sharp turn since June last year – and not in the right direction. More than three million people have been displaced. Many ran for their lives. Children have been abducted, girls raped and tens of thousands of houses looted or seized.

It’s rush hour as we drive into the ‘International Zone’, a fortified area of about 10 square km where the United Nations offices are located. On ‘Route Charlie’ – or the ‘route of the dead’, as it was known during the 2003 conflict – dozens of Iraqi cars are queued at the checkpoint, their human cargo trying to get to work.

Displaced Iraqi children from Mosul now living in Baherka Camp in northern Iraq.

Displaced Iraqi children from Mosul now living in Baherka Camp in northern Iraq. (c)UNICEF/2015/Juliette Touma

Baghdad
At 7 p.m., we meet our colleague A’li in Baghdad. A’li’s just back from the camps of displaced people. He’s sweating. He tells us about the misery he’s witnessed. “The past few days have been sheer hell,” he says. “People were pleading for drinking water.” A’li and colleagues have been working to truck water into the area.

A’li is among some 40 Iraqi staff working with UNICEF in Baghdad, helping children and families in need. Every morning, they take the perilous journey to work. In the past week alone, two bombs have gone off in the capital, killing more than 100 people. According to the United Nations Mission in Iraq, July has been the deadliest month so far this year. “I have to leave my house at five every morning to avoid traffic and the bombs,” Omar, another colleague, tells me.

Back on the airport road, a huge placard reads: “The will of the people is stronger than the tyrants!” A few days later, mass protests take place in Baghdad. Iraqis are protesting the lack of electricity amid what has been reported as the harshest heat wave in decades.

Erbil
We head north to Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region, which last year received the highest number of families fleeing violence in Mosul and other areas. Many left loved ones behind.

Rami, 12, recounts how his grandfather disappeared when armed groups attacked his house in Hamdaniya, outside Mosul. He now lives in the Baherka camp, which is home to 1,500 children.

As we walk through the camp, I can’t help but think: “Hang on a minute – I’ve been here before.” Except I haven’t. I realize that what this camp in Iraq reminds me of is Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. The similarities are everywhere. It is dusty, boiling hot, full of tents. In a different country going through a different conflict for a different reason, people’s analogous stories of despair sound like restless shouts into the void.

Future
Iraq is spending 35 per cent of its budget on security, and the humanitarian funding is dwindling. On this visit, I keep thinking of the huge duty for aid workers. Up until a few years ago, Iraq was very close to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, especially when it came to children’s enrolment in education. Quite impressive, given that Iraq has gone through more than three decades of conflict, sanctions and economic stagnation. But, like Yemen and Syria, Iraq is now sinking into violence, killings and anguish. Children are at the very centre of the suffering.

A couple of frightening numbers keep popping up as a reminder of the challenge ahead of us: There are 3 million children out of school in Iraq, while 35,000 children under 5 die every year.

I hope that, when I go back to Iraq again in a few years’ time, every single one of these children will be sitting at a desk in a nice school, and all newborns will get to grow up into healthy babies. I wonder what Rami’s destiny will be. Will he continue to live in a camp? Will he get out and rebuild his life? Or will he perhaps, like many thousands, end up fleeing Iraq entirely, perhaps on a rickety boat, thinking, hoping, no matter the journey, life must certainly be better somewhere else?

Juliette Touma is a Communications & Media Specialist with the UNICEF Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa.

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Pedaleando por la educación indígena en Paraguay

En medio de senderos plagados de mosquitos, caminos llenos de barro y una naturaleza exuberante, un grupo de ciclistas conformado por distintos profesionales y personalidades de Paraguay recorrió comunidades indígenas del Chaco para conocer la realidad de los niños y niñas nativos como parte de una expedición organizada por UNICEF Paraguay.

Los participantes posan al inicio de la expedición ciclística, en la entrada de la comunidad indígena Armonía, a 400 km al norte de Asunción. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Brom

Los participantes posan al inicio de la expedición ciclística, en la entrada de la comunidad indígena Armonía, a 400 km al norte de Asunción. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Brom

Bajo la consigna ‘Cero niños fuera de la escuela’, una marcha ciclista quiso concienciar ‘in situ’ sobre la realidad de los niños y niñas que viven en el Chaco paraguayo y las dificultades que enfrentan en su día a día para llegar a la escuela, lo que en muchos casos acaba influyendo para que abandonen los estudios.

Según datos oficiales del Gobierno de Paraguay, el 7,8% de personas de entre 6 y 17 años de edad no asiste a una institución educativa de enseñanza formal en el país, es decir, unos 125.000 niños, niñas y adolescentes permanecen fuera de la escuela.

Para visibilizar esta realidad y sus causas, la expedición partió a unos 400 km al norte de Asunción, donde viven algunas de las comunidades indígenas de Paraguay. Hasta allí se trasladó el grupo de participantes conformado por periodistas, chefs, deportistas, empresarios, filósofos, médicos y entusiastas del ciclismo de aventura, entre otros perfiles.

El recorrido transitó por varias aldeas nativas del área. El encuentro central tuvo lugar en El Estribo, donde los participantes compartieron unos momentos con los líderes de la zona y conocieron sus principales preocupaciones y desafíos.

Uno de estos líderes, Gabriel Quintana, comentó que este año las familias decidieron destinar una parte del subsidio que reciben del Estado para comprar alimentos para los niños y niñas, por lo que prácticamente no se registraron deserciones escolares. “No se puede decir que los indígenas no quieren estudiar. Sí quieren. ¿Pero por qué no pueden? Por la falta de recursos”, explicó.

En el trayecto, los ciclistas pedalearon 65 kilómetros y pasaron por varias comunidades, donde fueron saludados por sus miembros, quienes los esperaban animadamente al costado del camino. “Todo el que pasaba, me saludaba. Me decía ‘¿a dónde vas?’. Y si me veían cansada, me decían ‘te falta poco’”, relató Yehimy Alison González, una conocida periodista de radio y televisión de Asunción.

Vicisitudes

Pero no todo fue alegría y camaradería en el recorrido. Varias partes de los caminos de tierra se encontraban anegadas, por lo que los ciclistas tuvieron que cruzar con esfuerzo el agua y el barro.

Todas estas dificultades les permitieron entender las vicisitudes que deben pasar diariamente niños, niñas y adultos para vivir en las duras condiciones que impone el Chaco paraguayo, donde acudir a la escuela es una difícil aventura para cualquier estudiante.

Dado que el Chaco es una zona con vegetación muy agreste, algunos de los participantes sufrieron el pinchazo de las ruedas de sus bicicletas, lo que les obligó a cambiarlas en medio de nubes de mosquitos que prácticamente eran inmunes a los repelentes de insectos.

Los caminos que atraviesan las aldeas indígenas del Chaco son de tierra y están rodeados de una vegetación agreste. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

Los caminos que atraviesan las aldeas indígenas del Chaco son de tierra y están rodeados de una vegetación agreste. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

“Yo pinché la rueda en uno de esos caminos que le llaman ‘picadas’ y quedé paralizado por unos cuatro o cinco minutos cambiando la rueda. Era impresionante la cantidad de mosquitos que tenía en todo mi cuerpo”, comentó Fernando Marín, un filósofo mexicano que trabaja en una ONG que también desarrolla proyectos sociales en las comunidades indígenas de la zona.

Pero más allá de las cuestiones de distancias y caminos intransitables, los participantes se dieron cuenta de un factor muy importante para aumentar la presencia de los niños en las aulas: la necesidad de una correcta alimentación. Como afirmaron los líderes indígenas con los que conversaron, el hambre es uno de los principales impedimentos que aleja a los estudiantes de las escuelas. La periodista Natalia Daporta -una de las participantes con gran experiencia en el área de educación- recorrió precisamente las comunidades recabando datos sobre la situación en este campo. “No recibieron hasta el momento merienda ni almuerzo escolar. Sabemos muy bien que la alimentación es muy importante para el rendimiento de los alumnos, y también para mantener a los chicos en la escuela”, indicó.

La experiencia

Al final de la jornada, la mayoría de los participantes estaban impactados con lo que habían vivido ese día y surgieron ideas para tratar de colaborar con la subsistencia de las comunidades. “Esta experiencia nos tiene que concientizar, para mí ha sido muy significativa y creo que tiene que generar una nueva cultura: que todos seamos conscientes de esos derechos que tienen los niños y el principal derecho a estudiar”, sostuvo Marín.

“La visita a las comunidades me permitió ver y sentir esas barreras invisibles que nosotros desde la ciudad no podemos percibir. Cuando uno tiene hambre, cuando uno está enfermo, cuando hay que recorrer muchísimos kilómetros para poder ir a la escuela… llegar a ella y aprender es un verdadero desafío para esos niños y esas niñas”, reflexionó la abogada María José Rivas. Tras la experiencia, ella consiguió un importante lote de medicamentos que fue enviado a El Estribo, donde no se contaba con productos médicos básicos cuando los expedicionarios la visitaron.

Nadia Cano, periodista y ciclista, posa con algunos niños y niñas de la comunidad El Estribo. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

Nadia Cano, periodista y ciclista, posa con algunos niños y niñas de la comunidad El Estribo. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

Asimismo, está previsto realizar una jornada de evaluación y sistematización de propuestas con los participantes para mejorar la situación de las comunidades indígenas de la zona. Todo esto será presentado posteriormente a las autoridades del Ministerio de Educación y Cultura del Gobierno paraguayo para contar también con su apoyo.

La expedición ‘Cero niños fuera de la escuela’ se confirmó así como una actividad no tradicional que buscó atraer la atención de diferentes tipos de personas hacia el Chaco y sus aldeas nativas, la mayoría de las cuales no siempre se encuentra en la agenda de las prioridades de las autoridades nacionales, ya sea por su lejanía geográfica como por su invisibilidad política y real.

UNICEF es una de las organizaciones que trabaja en el Chaco paraguayo, específicamente en el distrito de Tte. Manuel Irala Fernández, mediante acciones integradas que buscan desde hace dos años asegurar que niños y adolescentes se inscriban, permanezcan y aprendan en la escuela. En este sentido, apoya campañas de comunicación para sensibilizar a la comunidad educativa sobre esta problemática y fortalece al Consejo Distrital de Educación, que está integrado por representantes de la municipalidad y de la comunidad educativa. Asimismo, UNICEF apoya los sistemas escolares de agua y saneamiento y educación en higiene, la capacitación de docentes rurales e indígenas, la producción de materiales educativos en las diversas lenguas indígenas de la zona y a las organizaciones de mujeres indígenas para que incidan en las políticas educativas y en proyectos productivos.

* Diego Brom y Nadia Villalba son, respectivamente, asistente y consultora de Comunicación de UNICEF Paraguay

 

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Children on the move through Europe dream of a ‘normal’ life

Mascut, 3, from Syria, plays with a ball at the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space. After waiting 6 hours in the sun to cross the border with his mother and sister, he recalls what it feels like to rest and play before embarking on the next stretch to Serbia.

Mascut, 3, from Syria, plays with a ball at the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space. After waiting 6 hours in the sun to cross the border with his mother and sister, he recalls what it feels like to rest and play before embarking on the next stretch to Serbia. (c)UNICEFMK/2015/TomislavGeorgiev

When I arrived on Saturday to the town of Gevgelija near the border with Greece, I witnessed people and children with utter desperation and fear in their eyes. Thousands of children and families on the move from conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa had pushed through a police cordon where they had been waiting to enter the country. This resulted in a stampede as exhausted and frightened people raced towards the city centre.

Amidst the confusion, children were separated from their families and left to wander down the nearby railway tracks. My colleague and I, worried for their safety, set out to find these children so that we could bring them to a makeshift protection centre until they could be reunited with their parents and caregivers. It was a terrifying ordeal for them, but fortunately, all of the boys and girls were later able to re-join their families.

Yet for most of these children, this incident was just one more hardship in their long and perilous journeys in search of safety after having been displaced by conflict from their home countries. Some 2,000 – 3,000 people, usually in smaller groups of 50 – 100, are now crossing daily from Greece into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after making the dangerous trip by sea across the Aegean. Soon they will move on to Serbia and then to other countries in the European Union.

After travelling for days on end, the youngest children in particular often arrive dehydrated or running a fever because they have been sleeping out in the open. Children and adults come barefoot, their shoes having been destroyed after so much walking.

Some families are from Syria or Iraq, while others have travelled from Afghanistan. All just want to live in peace, free from the threat of violence, displacement and death.

Lamar, 4, has travelled with her mother for just over 2 months from Syria to the Gevgelija border crossing. They are heading to Germany to reunite with Lamar's father who managed to reach Germany 4 months ago. Her mother tells us their house was burned to the ground and that they have nothing left. The hope of reuniting their family and a better life gives them courage to keep moving.

Lamar, 4, has travelled with her mother for just over 2 months from Syria to the Gevgelija border crossing. They are heading to Germany to reunite with Lamar’s father who managed to reach Germany 4 months ago. Her mother tells us their house was burned to the ground and that they have nothing left. The hope of reuniting their family and a better life gives them courage to keep moving. (c)UNICEFMK/2015/TomislavGeorgiev

Most of the children I have spoken with do not want to talk about their experiences with war. They are more interested in sharing their hopes for the future which always seems to include going back to school. Just the other day, I watched as a group of children from several different countries played together by pretending they were in a classroom. Even though they did not all speak the same language, they organized themselves into ‘pretend’ teachers and students – sharing in the same pleasant daydream of just being a ‘normal kid’.

It’s been about five days since the chaotic scene at the border and the services available for people crossing over have improved. There is a new Migrant Reception Centre about 500 metres from the Greek border and we are working with our partners to ensure that children and families arriving here are provided with essential services to help sustain them for their onward journey. A second tent at the centre is now being used as a safe space place for women and children to access support services.

Yet far more must be done to meet the growing humanitarian needs here. There is not enough shelter to accommodate the number of people passing through and many are forced to sit outside for hours in the scorching sun. More sanitation facilities are needed and there is no running water – I’ve seen parents washing their children with bottled water.

We’re here to help though and day by day, it will get better. I hope that one day soon the children I have met here will get what they want most – a normal life where they will be able to sit in a real classroom instead of an imaginary one.

Aleksandar Lazovski is a UNICEF Social Protection Specialist

Children in Myanmar wash their hands with soap at a hand-washing station, while other students behind them wait their turn to use latrines.

New data cast light on poor hygiene

Children in Myanmar wash their hands with soap at a hand-washing station, while other students behind them wait their turn to use latrines.

Children in Myanmar wash their hands with soap at a hand-washing station. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-2056/Dean

This week is World Water Week. Each year, leaders and experts meet in Stockholm to discuss global challenges relating to water. This year the conference celebrates its 25th year, with a specific focus is on water for development. There will also be lots of discussion about the broad spectrum of water issues ranging from water resources and climate change to access to the most basic of drinking water and sanitation facilities. There will be some, but all too little debate about the related topic of hygiene.

Four surprising facts on hygiene

  1. Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective interventions to reduce diarrhoea and pneumonia, two leading causes of child mortality.
  2. Research studies have suggested that very few people – approximately one in five globally – wash their hands after going to the loo. Whilst these data are limited they certainly demonstrate the scale of the challenge.
  3. Last year the Guinness World record for handwashing was won when almost 13 million students washed their hands simultaneously across over 1,300 schools in Madhya Pradesh, India.
  4. Menstrual hygiene remains a taboo in many settings – with poor knowledge and misconceptions as great a challenge as access to adequate facilities at home as well as at school. Learn more about menstrual hygiene and its impacts on women and girls in the Menstrual Hygiene Matters report.

It also happens to be the 25th anniversary of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation, whose report at the end of the Millennium Development Goals showed that 663 million people still lack an improved source of drinking water and 2.4 billion lack an improved sanitation facility.The ability to track progress on drinking water and sanitation during the last twenty-five years has helped to draw attention to people without basic services and to highlight persistent inequalities both between and within countries. Until recently, far less attention had been given to hygiene, which unlike water and sanitation, was not part of the Millennium Development Goals and has not been systematically tracked at the global level.

An adolescent girl takes part in an handwashing demonstration for a group of adolescent girls in Chowrapara, Rangpur, Bangladesh.

An adolescent girl takes part in an handwashing demonstration for a group of adolescent girls in Chowrapara, Rangpur, Bangladesh. © UNICEF/BANA2014-01296/Paul

Of the range of hygiene behaviours considered important for health, handwashing with soap is a top priority in all settings. Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective interventions to reduce diarrhoea and pneumonia, two leading causes of child mortality. But handwashing behaviours are tricky to measure – people know the “right” answer and are very likely to tell you it if you ask them directly. For that reason, the most practical approach leading to reliable measurement of handwashing is observation of the place where hands are washed and noting the presence of water and soap at that location. This lets you know whether households have the necessary tools for handwashing and provides a proxy for their behaviour. Learn more by reading the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program working paper: Practical Guidance for Measuring Handwashing Behavior.

The data for over 50 countries show consistently low levels of access to handwashing facilities in many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa but also Southern Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo fewer than one in ten people have access to a facility. In countries with higher coverage overall, such as Mongolia – the poorest are greatly disadvantaged: only one in ten have access compared with almost all of those in the wealthiest quintile (96%). Similarly, people living in rural areas are less likely to have access to handwashing facilities – as is the case in Afghanistan where they are only half as likely as people in urban areas. Explore the available handwashing data for yourself using the interactive dashboard on handwashing.

The great news is that hygiene is part of the new Sustainable Development Goals and is specifically mentioned together with sanitation in Target 6.2 which by 2030 seeks to ‘achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’. UN member states still need to select an indicator for handwashing to track progress and ensure these ambitions are properly reflected.And you can join the Global Public-Private Partnership for handwashing campaign to advocate for a handwashing SDG indicator. Over the next few years, data will then continue to be collected in household surveys such as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys and Demographic and Health Surveys and it will become possible to tell whether and how much the situation has improved. The data will also tell us whether the international community is giving hygiene the attention it most surely deserves.

Explore the interactive dashboard on handwashing:

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Robert Bain is a Statistical Specialist focusing on water, sanitation and hygiene in UNICEF’s Data and Analytics Section in New York.

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Syrian women risk their lives to protect children from polio

More than 200 Syrian women risk their lives every day to save the lives of children by teaching fellow mothers about the importance of polio vaccinations in the most hard-to-reach areas, including in Dar’a in the far south of Syria, and Aleppo in the northern part of the war-torn country. UNICEF works with local partners to train these women on holding educational sessions and delivering key messages to parents of the young children.

The fight against polio in Syria is one that goes beyond administering vaccinations – it also requires changing misconceptions, especially in the most inaccessible areas.

“Being a parent myself, makes me want to protect all the children of the world,” said Suzan, a mother of three and a volunteer in Dar’a. “I learned about the importance of vaccinations from a health worker, so I vaccinated my children. But what if other mothers did not? Why should the children suffer?” she asked, explaining her drive to help out.

A woman volunteer takes the stand at a mosque in Aleppo to teach gathered women on the importance of Polio vaccinations and their safety. ©UNICEF Syria/2015

A woman volunteer takes the stand at a mosque in Aleppo to teach gathered women on the importance of polio vaccinations and their safety. ©UNICEF Syria/2015

Suzan took advantage of any opportunity to reach out to mothers and give them critical information on protection from polio. While most of her work entailed holding informative sessions in shelters for the internally displaced people, she took innovative steps to spread her knowledge.

“During major water cuts, I’d approach women gathering to fill their cans with water and talk to them about vaccination and hygiene,” she said. “I can tell how responsive they were because they asked questions and interacted with me, especially young mothers.”

Working in hard to reach areas, the mission of these unsung heroes is dotted with challenges. According to the women, a deteriorating security situation, increased restrictions on the movement of women without a male companion and resistance against vaccinations in some parts of the country are among the obstacles they face on a daily basis.

“The violence in the area is making people hesitant to take their children to medical centres to get vaccinated,” said Jinan, a volunteer in Aleppo. Jinan noted another obstacle faced by the volunteers; the misperceptions of parents over the safety of the vaccinations.

“Parents were too scared to get their children vaccinated due to rumours,” she explained. “We clarified over and over again the credibility of the source and the importance of the polio vaccine until we convinced them.”

Despite challenges, these courageous and dedicated women are reaching out to as many mothers as possible – and getting them to vaccinate their children as a result.

A volunteer with UNICEF holds in-house sessions with mothers in Aleppo and distributes informative flyers on protection from polio. ©UNICEF Syria/2015

A volunteer with UNICEF holds in-house sessions with mothers in Aleppo and distributes informative flyers on protection from polio. ©UNICEF Syria/2015

“The most exciting thing is sharing your knowledge, then watching the mothers take actions based on it,” said Mariam, another community influencer in Aleppo. “One woman went and vaccinated her three children immediately after the information session”.

“Since the outbreak of polio in Syria in late 2013 that resulted in 36 recorded cases in the country, 15 massive vaccination campaigns supported by UNICEF have been rolled out combined with raising public awareness at the community level,” explained Hanaa Singer, UNICEF representative in Syria.

The campaigns reached more than 2.9 million children under the age of five across the country. Many were vaccinated several times. “We were able to reach some children living under siege or in areas hard-to-reach. However, we estimate that some 80,000 children continue to miss out on the life-saving vaccination,” warned Singer.

“Mothers listen and relate better to other mothers,” said Dr. Nidal Abou Rshaid, UNICEF immunization officer. “The volunteers’ role is extremely important because they are more capable of delivering the information.”

Yasmine Saker is a Communication and Reporting Consultant working with UNICEF Syria.

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Tackling cholera in Haiti

A child fetches water from a local waterpoint.

A child fetches water from a local waterpoint. (c) UNICEF Haiti/2015/Walther

After recently spending 24 hours in Gonaives, Artibonite department, the link between water and health is once again engraved in my mind. The day – spent on the ground with UNICEF partner Action Against Hunger (ACF) in and around the commune of St Michel d’Attalye – illustrated the direct connection between safe water and cholera, between life and death like no infographic or report could.

Gonaives was the first place I visited after arriving in Haiti in September 2014. At the time, it was among the hotspots of the still ongoing cholera epidemic, with over 470 cases that month. Today the situation has calmed down all over the country with a 90 percent reduction in reported cases between 2014 (27,388) and 2011 (350,000). However, with an ambitious target of reaching less than 1,000 suspected cases a year (an incidence of <0.01%) to reach elimination by 2022, each confirmed cholera case is of concern.

This is particularly true in the capital Port-au-Prince and in the departments of North and Center which account for over half of all cases and where over 2,000 cases have already been observed for 2015 (nearly 6,000 in Port-au-Prince alone). In contrast, Artibonite has entered a quiet period, meaning that although cases continue to occur (an average of 55 cases a week), NGO partners can dedicate more attention to prevention and strengthening community-based response mechanisms to cholera alerts.

A group of children walk to collect water.

A group of children walk to collect water. (c) UNICEF Haiti/2015/Walther

The Haitian government and its partners, including UNICEF, implement a four-pronged approach to eliminate cholera in the country.

  • One: rapid response and investigation of all cholera alerts led by Ministry of Health emergency response teams (EMIRA) and supported by UN and NGO partners.
  • Two: complementary investments in the underlying structural causes of the epidemic, in particular access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.
  • Three: strengthening of epidemiological surveillance (to control an epidemic it is crucial to have timely information about the number and location of cases) and the enhancement of health services at national and local levels.
  • Four: sensitization of individuals on good hygiene practices via mass media campaigns and face-to-face community outreach activities. Whenever possible community-based interventions are prioritized

When I visited Gonaives in September 2014 cholera agents of the ACF-team were working hand-in-hand with the EMIRA and other local government agents to ensure a professional response within 48 hours after each cholera alert. Once a patient was registered at a cholera treatment center (CTC) the agents’ task was to disinfect his/her home and to establish a ‘sanitary cordon’ (‘cordon sanitaire’) around the neighboring houses of the cholera patient – usually around ten houses. The latter involves disinfection of neighboring houses if required, sensitization activities, and provision all of cholera kits that contain a month’s supply of soap, water, chlorine tablets (to disinfect drinking water) and oral rehydration salts (to compensate lost minerals in case of diarrhea) to families.

An ACF agent conduct a refresher training for community volunteers.

An ACF agent conducts a refresher training for community volunteers. (c) UNICEF Haiti/2015/Walther

To ensure quick local response capacities, ACF is now benefitting from the relative calm to conduct prevention activities and to refine a mechanism of community-based agents, which may eventually replace the need for external assistance. In high-risk areas, ACF has trained community volunteers called ‘brigadiers’, who know how to prevent cholera and what to do when a case is registered. Besides, they are in charge of keeping their communities attentive to the risk of cholera and encouraging good hygiene practices and other preventative behaviors. This approach has a triple advantage. Being themselves from the communities the brigadiers know the area by heart, they have more credibility than outsiders, and they are on site when an outbreak occurs.

Currently, the cholera epidemic in Haiti remains an emergency with the acute risk of major outbreaks. In particular the current rainy season (which will last until November) makes experts itchy. The spike in cases last November illustrates the need for ongoing vigilance and rapid response. Despite continued progress against the disease, for a large part of the population the risk of cholera remains the same as in 2010. The localized epicenters of cholera outbreaks continue to be characterized by a lack of water and sanitation infrastructure, insufficient social services, and the high mobility of populations.

To break the chain of transmission and get rid of cholera in Haiti, clean water and sanitation together with improved hygiene behaviour are the key. Today’s challenge is to break the chain of transmission and to eliminate the remaining risk, once and for all.

Cornelia Walther is the Chief of Communication at UNICEF Haiti

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Achta’s dream of education

With the security situation improving in some parts of the Central African Republic, plans are being made to restore access to education.

With the security situation improving in some parts of the Central African Republic, plans are being made to restore access to education. (c)UNICEF CAR /2015/Le Du

The 24th of July was a very sad day for Achta. The seventeen-year-old was sitting in her house, fretting over her dream of getting an education. She was supposed to take an entrance test for secondary school that day, but the exam was taking place on the other side of town, controlled by one of the armed groups active in CAR, the anti-Balaka. As a Muslim, she was afraid of going, for fear of being attacked.

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Achta and Cecile. (c)UNICEF CAR

Then Achta heard a voice outside the house calling for her. Some people were looking for her. “I ran out of the house, and there I saw the principal of my school and a lady wearing a UNICEF t-shirt”, she recalls. “She told me I had to go to UN OCHA base the next morning at 7,” says Achta, “and that a car would pick me up, drive me to the school where the exams were taking place, and then drive me back home to safety when I was finished”.

“I cried with relief, and I prayed to God and asked him to bless this angel that had come to rescue me”, says Achta.

A few days later she got her results: she passed, and she will be going to secondary school next month.

The situation in CAR has developed from a silent emergency into a visible and complex humanitarian and protection crisis, as a result of a rebel offensive that began in December 2012 and a seizure of power in March 2013. Fighting in the capital reached a peak in December 2013 as armed and community-based self-defence groups calling themselves Anti-Balaka rose up in revenge against ex-Seleka, the rebel group who had orchestrated the coup nine months earlier. The violence spread out across the country, with large-scale human rights abuses committed on both sides, followed by a serious deterioration in the humanitarian situation.

Children at a temporary learning space.

Children at a temporary learning space. (c)UNICEF CAR/Logan

With hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by violence, and regular education services disrupted, UNICEF was able to set up temporary learning spaces for children. Now that the security situation is improving in many areas of the country, UNICEF, the Ministry of Education and partners are working towards ambitious programs that aim to rebuild the school system with funding from the European Union and the Global Partnership for Education.

In Batangafo, where Achta lives, the peak in violence was reached in June 2014, with clashes between ex-Seleka and Anti-Balaka armed groups. The town has now been divided for over a year, with most of the non-Muslim population (over 28.000 people) living either in an internally displaced persons camp, or in a small part of town, away from the Muslim population.

In August 2014, the Anti-Balaka armed groups attacked Achta’s neigborhood. Her father was killed. Her mother fled, her fate unknown to the girl until she got word that she had safely reached Cameroon. Achta then ended up living with her sister and grandparents. She would spend her days sitting in front of the house, selling peanuts and salt, in order to provide for the family.

Achta’s regular school had closed, because it was located in the ex-Seleka controlled part of town. Over the last few months Achta has been able to attend classes in one of the Temporary Learning Spaces set up by UNICEF and partners. However, the secondary school entrance exams were organised in one location only- and it was in the non-Muslim part of Batangafo. There was no way she could go there on her own.

Achta was doing well in school and her teacher knew it. I happened to be in Batangafo on that day, and he asked me if UNICEF could help. I will never forget her tears of joy when she finally found out she had passed. After months of suffering –and probably many more difficult times to come, being able to attend secondary school is giving Achta hope for the future.

Cecile Pango is an education officer working with UNICEF CAR focusing on Temporary Safe Learning Spaces.

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Keeping families connected during Ebola quarantine

Grandma Gbla only allowed her 15-year-old granddaughter Adamseh to be taken from Ebola quarantine to hospital to give birth when she received promises that Adamseh would be well taken care of and that the two could keep in touch.

The family, and indeed the entire 500-strong village of Massesebe in Sierra Leone’s Tonkolili district, had just been put under 21-day quarantine following the death of an Ebola-infected man who had travelled back to the village from Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown. Sadly the case was not reported and his death was followed by a traditional burial without the appropriate safety procedures. The risk that this might result in further outbreaks necessitated the immediate isolation of the direct contacts.

But when quarantine hit, Adamseh was nine months pregnant. Given her young age, members of the Ebola response team decided it was best to take her to a health facility that could manage her quarantine status. So, following a discussion with her grandmother, with whom Adamseh was living, she was taken to the Lion Heart Hospital. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

Keeping the promise made to Grandma Gbla, UNICEF child protection officer Amie Tholley, visits Adamseh regularly, bringing back word of her condition. And, despite being in quarantine, Grandma Gbla has already had her first glimpse of her new grandson through a video message that Tholley recorded and brought back to show family and neighbours.

“I am doing fine, and this is my baby boy, though I haven’t given him a name yet,” said Adamseh in the video message to her quarantined family. “They helped me with the delivery and are taking good care of me here, so don’t worry. I will see you soon.”

UNICEF Child Protection Officer Amie Tholley shows a video message from Adamseh who was taken from her quarantined home in Massesebe Village to give birth at the Lion Heart hospital, to her grandmother, grand-aunt and neighbours.

UNICEF Child Protection Officer Amie Tholley shows a video message from Adamseh who was taken from her quarantined home in Massesebe Village to give birth at the Lion Heart hospital, to her grandmother, grand-aunt and neighbours.

UNICEF, CDC and other partners in the Ebola response are using photographs and video messages to allay doubts and fears. In other cases, video messages have been given by those in Ebola Treatment Units and high-risk contacts in isolation. It helps build confidence among communities that health services can be counted on.

Additional support is provided to minimize stress caused by the quarantine. This includes toys, books and games for children no longer free to roam in the neighbourhood, as well as radios and games for adults whose minds are on their farms. Counselling and psychological first-aid is also provided by trained counsellors.

“Quarantine is a very stressful period for families, especially for girls like Adamseh who are minors. Their families were really concerned because she was pregnant and in quarantine,” said Tholley.

“The reaction to the family liaison work that we do has been good. For example take Adamseh – she was really happy she was taken to Lion Heart to give birth and how she is being treated at the hospital, and that she delivered there,” said Tholley. “When we came back and showed the pictures and the video message she sent to the grandmothers, they were really happy and they thanked UNICEF and other partners for all that they are doing for them during this time of quarantine.”

UNICEF is providing Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, social mobilization, and psycho-social and child protection support to the emergency response in Tonkolili District, the latest Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile, in the village of Massesebe, the District Emergency Response Centre (DERC) in partnership with UNICEF, WHO, and many other partners, decontaminated and cordoned off the compound where the man had died and added a tented extension to the house to provide more space. Pit latrines were dug, adequate sanitation facilities and hygiene products were provided including a water tank adjacent to the compound, and arrangements were made to feed the people. The entire village was put behind orange quarantine tape, and the 21-day observation period, with thrice daily monitoring of everybody’s temperature for signs of fever, began. Massangha Hospital was also quarantined.

Ambulances were put on standby, and water trucks commissioned to deliver water. Ebola survivors, previously organized in an association, were brought in and trained to deliver water to each of the 49 households in the community.

On 14 August 2015, quarantine ended and the family were reunited.

As of 13 August 2015, there have been 8,697 confirmed cases of Ebola, with 3,586 confirmed deaths from the virus in Sierra Leone.

UNICEF’s USD 178 million appeal to respond to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, remains under-funded, with 121.7 million received to date, leaving a funding gap of USD 56.3 million.

Indrias G. Kassaye is a Communications Specialist working with UNICEF Sierra Leone