India: Lifebuoy promotes handwashing with soap to improve health

Diarrhoea causes over two million deaths a year. Handwashing with soap and water can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by up to 48%.

Lifebuoy promotes handwashingReducing diarrhoeal diseases

Julie Sahoo is a schoolgirl from Gangijoodi, a poor rice-farming community in East India whose families live off the land, draw their water from wells and live in mud houses that lack basic sanitation.

Julie and her friends are only too aware of the misery diarrhoeal diseases can cause. In India a child succumbs to diarrhoea every 30 seconds. Yet a World Bank study estimates that handwashing with soap and water can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by up to 48%, preventing over one and a half million children from dying each year. 

Men washing with soapLifebuoy is Unilever's biggest brand in India and the country's most popular soap. In 2002, the Lifebuoy brand team launched an ambitious five-year campaign to educate 200 million Indians – 20 per cent of the population – to wash their hands with soap after defecating. 

The Lifebuoy 'Swasthya Chetna' ('Health Awakening') campaign – the single largest rural health and hygiene education programme ever undertaken in India – adopts a multi-stage approach over two or three years to ensure handwashing becomes part of everyday life.

Community eventHealth education

Health officers visit the village school to teach children about germs and encourage the school to put on a show for parents and the community, acting out sketches on the importance of handwashing with soap. Mothers of young children are invited to attend a health education session, and schoolchildren, parents and other villagers are recruited as volunteers to start up health clubs that organise community events.

Hindustan Unilever, a subsidiary of Unilever, has committed €4.5 million (US$ 5.4 million) to fund the campaign for five years. The company has already started to see a return on its investment, with sales of Lifebuoy growing by 20% in 2003-4. 

Lifebuoy campaignBy the end of 2005 the campaign had reached around 18 000 villages, including children like Julie: "I didn't know soap could save lives. I didn't even know about germs. Now I wash with soap whenever I can and my friends and I are telling everyone about hidden germs and how soap can help you stay well."

Read the full story by downloading the pdf in the links on the right.

Note: The pdf was written in 2005. By the end of 2009, Swasthya Chetna and similar hygiene promotion campaigns in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Africa had reached more than 133 million people to date. For more information, please see the Handwashing initiatives section of our online Sustainable Development Report 2009.