New Internationalist

The Unwashed

Issue 083

People don’t like being dirty and they don’t like ‘to smell - facts that often get overlooked in the statistics on poverty, says Mary Racelis Hollsteiner of UNICEF in the latest issue of Assignment Children.

After poor people move to the city it becomes impossible to continue the country tradition of a daily bathe in the river. So they have to put up with wearing dirty clothes for days, and sometime weeks, at a time. And as Ms. Hollsteiner says: ‘the repugnant smell of their unwashed bodies and clothes, they are well aware, does not endear them to their better bathed, more cleanly-dressed neighbours.’

Pavement children in Calcutta for example were persuaded to attend a neighbourhood school, but were rejected by their classmates largely because of their dirty ill-smelling state. Many of them left and so lost the opportunity for a better education. And when a club for street boys was opened recently in Bombay, the first facility the boys wanted was water to to wash in. In Manila, the organisers of a summer dramatics programme found that adolescents from the Tondo squatter settlement were reluctant to participate. What the adults running the programme thought was shyness turned out to be a feeling of inferiority because of the way the children smelled. A voluntary programme of daily baths restored their confidence. In fact, Ms. Holsteiner argues, the urban poor worry more about the personal inconvenience of being dirty and being shunned by their neighbours then they do about the health hazards that result from a lack of clean water.

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