After Pakistan’s floods, mobile teams bring health messages to villagers

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By Raheela Chaudhry

BADIN DISTRICT, Pakistan, 13 January 2012 – Andraj, 11, looks up at a familiar sound. His eyes brighten and, without pausing to put on his shoes, he dashes barefoot out of his house.

A bright blue truck has rumbled into the village of Sabho Kolhi, but the sound of its engine is drowned out by the laughter of the children clustering around the vehicle. The truck – a ‘mobile float’ – carries a large television screen and a sound system that, the children know, will bring them the latest animated adventures of Meena, her brother Raju, and their little parrot friend Mithu.

At the start of the cartoon’s theme song, the children settle on the ground in orderly rows.

Struggling after the floods

Four months ago, the village of Sabho Kolhi was struck by catastrophic monsoon rains, forcing residents to flee. The flood waters took their belongings, livestock and, in some cases, their lives. Like many of his neighbours, Andraj spent months living in relief camps, and recently returned home to overwhelming losses. Much of his family’s mud home was destroyed.

Across Pakistan’s Sindh Province, 4.8 million people were affected by the floods, half of them children. In this impoverished region – which also faced catastrophic flooding the year before – 84 per cent of the affected population was left food insecure. And when the waters receded and displaced people returned to their villages, many found their homes had been damaged or destroyed, leaving them little shelter against the harsh winter.

Children fare worst in disasters like this one. Some 733,000 children were pushed out of school by the flood, and many may not return. With low literacy rates in the area, many people lack the knowledge to keep their children safe from deadly diseases, including sanitation-related diseases like diarrhoea, one of the most common killers of children under age 5. Since the floods, availability of adequate sanitation has been scarcer, making basic hygiene education even more critical.

Life lessons for children and adults

Andraj and his peers are receiving some of these important lessons as they watch the Meena cartoons – light-hearted stories set in villages very much like their own, conveying messages about child rights, education, hygiene and health.

While the children watch cartoons, scores of adults gather around Rehana Abbasi, a social mobilizer who explains the best ways to keep their children healthy, properly fed, and protected from preventable diseases. She emphasises the importance of habits such as hand-washing with soap; explains the importance of education, especially for girls, who are too often deprived of schooling; and stresses the need to protect children from violence and abuse.

Ms. Abbasi is part of a team of social mobilizers trained by UNICEF to work in the seven districts worst-affected by the floods. Working with UNICEF’s implementing partner, Health and Nutrition Development Society (HANDS), 15 such teams travel with UNICEF-supported mobile floats and water tankers. They even use speedboats to reach areas otherwise inaccessible because of floodwater.

Already, Ms. Abbasi has seen a change. “The women here have become much better at keeping things clean,” she says. And they are fully engaged during the two-hour sessions. “They don’t want to leave. Many of them have promised that they will send their daughters to school.”

By the end of December 2011, over 180,000 people had been reached with messages delivered by UNICEF and HANDS staff, and through educational cartoons.

In Sabho Kolhi Village, where education is poor and there are no health facilities or safe drinking water, the effect of these efforts is already becoming clear.

After the cartoons end, the children scatter. But before he leaves, Andraj pauses.

“I love these cartoons!” he says. “I have learned how to keep myself clean, and that it is important for children to go to school. Then you get good jobs. My sisters should also go to school so they can help our parents, like Meena does!”