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The religion of Hand-Washing

If you live in the USA, chances are you wash your hands. You probably don’t wash them as often as you think you should, but you wash them. Reading this may even make you feel guilty, that you should really go wash your hands now because it’s been a while and your hands are probably covered with germs.

Chances are you’ve known about the benefits of hand washing since you were a child. Your mother probably taught you to wash your hands after every trip to the bathroom, before you eat, after having played outside – all the ritual times.  I’m sure your mother took hand washing very seriously, because if she didn’t your health could suffer.  You learned to share her concern, you learned how important hand washing is to being healthy.

Now suppose I were to tell you hand washing didn’t make you healthy. Suppose I told you it wasn’t the hand washing, but something else that was at work. Suppose I told you to stop doing your hand-washing because it was a waste of time and energy, and took your focus off the real source of health. Could you do it? Could you stop washing your hands? Could you change your habits, your thoughts and your fears about what will happen if you don’t wash your hands?

I feel I should admit I’m a hand washer. Not only do I practice hand washing, but I act as a sort of leader of the hand washing movement. I share with others the benefits of hand washing. I explain the reasons they should, and the dangers if they do not. But because you and I are probably in agreement that hand washing is a good health behavior, arguing that you should wash your hands wouldn’t cause you to raise an eyebrow.

But if I argued against hand washing, if I tried to convince you it was all superstition and blind faith – do you feel your reaction to that? Do you feel the disbelief? Do you start to get annoyed, frustrated or angry? Do you start searching for support for your hand washing ways? Do you immediately try to prove me wrong? Do you immediately decide I’m not worth listening to? Do you feel how deep a blow to your basic belief system strikes?

I wanted to share this feeling with you because I wanted you to understand that culture and beliefs are not simple things to change. It is often not enough to go to an area and tell the locals how they should live their lives. In fact, that is often the worst thing you can do to improve global health because instead of improving situations, it makes them worse. If you feel called to make change in international maternal health issues, you need to understand this basic truth. You need to understand the magnitude of the changes you propose. You must have empathy for the struggles, both internal and system wide, that happen when change begins.

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Jennifer Vanderlaan CNM MPH is the author of the BirthingNaturally.net website. She has been working with expectant families since 2000, training doulas and childbirth educators, and midwives. She has worked with midwives in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in public health grew in 2010, and she is now a PhD student in a nursing program learning to become a producer of knowledge.

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