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Washing hands isn’t easy

By Elizabeth Stevens
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New hand-washing station in Barangay Bolusao, Lawaan, Philippines. Jason Torillo/PRRM

Not everyone has soap and water to work with. In the Philippines, Oxfam partner PRRM is helping communities stay a little safer.

The coronavirus has a way of slipping into the fissures of our world and illuminating them for all to see. While the haves on lockdown live physically comfortable lives, the have-nots who are sheltering in place struggle with hunger—and the frightening prospect of catching COVID-19 without access to proper health care. In wealthy countries, to step up your hand-washing practices all you might need is a few reminders; in the poor places of the world, you may lack the means to buy a bar of soap.

But in the rural villages, or barangays, of Eastern Samar province, the Philippines, an Oxfam partner has been helping poor communities tackle hand hygiene. Shelter-in-place orders have left families without incomes, and many are destitute. Not only do they struggle to buy essentials like soap—they lack running water in their homes so can’t simply turn on their faucets to scrub down.

Easily accessible hand-washing stations—including free soap—could be game-changers, so an Oxfam partner has been working closely with local governments to install them in the 34 barangays where they’ve been working. The partner—the Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM)—has asked its staff to stay in their homes, explains director Raymundo Agaton, so they worked from the sidelines.

“We provided the communities with a design for a simple handwashing station, and money to buy water containers, sinks, faucets, material for the stand, and soap,” he says. “They did the construction themselves.”

Like everywhere around the world, in the Philippines misinformation about COVID-19 is spreading as fast as the virus itself, so providing facts about hygiene is part of the package. Agaton and the local authorities have seen to it that the stations include clear, informative signs.

“In an emergency like this,” he says, “making sure everyone has good information is especially important.”

Trust, rights, and protecting lives

Eastern Samar is a coastal province that has borne the brunt of countless powerful typhoons, and the people who make their living here as fishers and farmers struggle to make ends meet. With Oxfam’s support, PRRM has worked for years helping vulnerable coastal communities prepare for disasters, protect the environment, and find sources of income that won’t be swept away when the next big storm makes landfall. In one town, they’re helping restore a mangrove forest. In another, they’re helping women develop a seaweed plantation. And everywhere they go, they work on what’s called digital financial inclusion: enabling people who would otherwise have no connection to a financial institution move money securely—whether to bank their savings or receive emergency cash transfers.

“We know the people we’re working with and understand their situations,” says Agaton. Which means that when an emergency strikes, PRRM is particularly well equipped to respond, and to help communities get back on their feet—one reason Oxfam supports organizations like PRRM as part of our commitment to local humanitarian leadership.

Like Oxfam, PRRM sees humanitarian work not as an act of charity but as a means of helping people claim their right to a life of security and dignity. “We believe everyone—including the poorest people—should have a chance to take part in the decisions that affect their lives,” says Agaton. That perspective affects how the organization goes about its business. “We try to create equal partnerships with the communities,” he says. “When we face a problem, we work hand in hand with them to devise a solution.”

It all adds up to something that in the COVID-19 crisis is worth its weight in gold: trust.

“We are rooted in the communities,” says Agaton, “and in this emergency we will do everything we can to help them.”

Oxfam has invested in strengthening local partner organizations in the Philippines and now support their work and leadership in humanitarian emergencies. In the COVID-19 crisis, we are working with 16 partners in vulnerable urban and rural communities, providing hand-washing stations, soap, hygiene, and drinking water kits, and information about reducing risks from the coronavirus—as well as referral information related to gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, and family planning.

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