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Answering the call

News story

In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report that made universities everywhere sit up.

Go Global students at the Shanti School in southern India.

Our globalised world was facing a shortage of health workers, it said, and educators were tasked with equipping the next generation of health professionals to work in dynamic, culturally diverse and cross-disciplinary teams. Curtin had already anticipated this new approach to health education with Go Global.

Go Global is a pioneering program that gives undergraduate health students the chance to work together with communities in developing countries to tackle crippling public health issues.

Over the years, Go Global has proven more than simply an opportunity for interprofessional learning. As a group of India-bound participants recently found out, the program is life changing for its beneficiaries.

Liquid for life

Clean water flows at the Shanthi School, India.

For most Australian children, the drink fountain is as much a fixture of school life as the playground. But in some parts of the world, clean water at school doesn’t come on tap.

At the Shanthi School for underprivileged children in southern India, staff and students only had access to contaminated groundwater.

Recent cuts to the school’s funding meant its 1,800 students were left to drink water containing roughly twice the level of dissolved solids normally considered safe for drinking. In the hot, muggy climate of the Tamil Nadu region, the consequences were disastrous.

Many students fainted from dehydration and sustained concussions, while others contracted illnesses like typhoid and dysentery from the dirty water. Fatalities were not uncommon. The playground was often silent.

Those who could afford to bring clean water to school were only slightly better off than those who couldn’t.

“A few school pupils and teachers were bringing water from their homes – around one litre of water in the morning,” said Dr K. Govindaraju, the director of the Society for Education, Village Action and Improvement (SEVAI), the organisation that runs the school.

“Students need at least two litres of water during their stay at school.”

In partnership with SEVAI, a group of Go Global students on placement in India investigated the problem and came up with a creative solution.

Occupational therapy student and program participant, Alana Walsh, describes their light bulb moment:

“We put our heads together and came up with the idea to send a video viral on the Internet to raise funds for a water filtration system that many hospitals and schools were using in southern India.

“Within a week we had raised the funds. It was the most amazing feeling.”

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/112275070[/vimeo]

Liquid for Life campaign video.

The low-cost system now produces 500 litres of water an hour, which is enough to hydrate the whole school, including staff, every day.

Furthermore, the Curtin students helped train a number of local women with disabilities to operate the system. The small monthly fee that students pay to use the water now provides the women with an income and the school with an additional, much-needed source of revenue.

School grades are up, and the playground is alive again.

Kristy Tomlinson, the Go Global coordinator for India, is astounded by the project’s impact.

“It’s really humbling,” she said. “Go Global shows that a little really does go a long way. This project taught our students that it’s possible to honestly and authentically change the lives of people, and that with a little creativity, it’s easier than you might think.”

Working for women

Local women were trained to operate the sanitary napkin machine.

“What would put a smile on your face every day?”

When Kristy Tomlinson posed this question to Dr K. Govindaraju in early 2014, he gave an unexpected answer.

He described how girls at the Shanti School were missing up to three months’ of schooling for two troubling reasons: a scarcity of affordable sanitary products and the prevailing social stigma attached to menstruation.

Many girls suffered urinary tract infections due to poor sanitation, while the gap in the young women’s learning was disadvantaging them from an early age.

Kristy took the problem to a group of Go Global students studying health promotion, occupational therapy, nursing, physiotherapy, and exercise and sports science. How could they find a way to supply cheap sanitary products to young women, and improve attendance at school?

Remarkably, the group found an answer in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World 2014. An entrepreneur from southern India had made the list for inventing a revolutionary, low-cost machine for manufacturing sanitary napkins.

The students organised a successful fundraising dinner, the machine was purchased, and within weeks it had been delivered to the community. On their arrival in India, the Go Global troupe drew on the village’s resources to get the project into full swing.

“A number of local mechanics helped the group to set everything up,” says Kristy. “The students then identified five women with disabilities living in the community and taught them how to run the machine as a small business.”

In conjunction with the machine, the Go Global students ran hygiene lessons at the school and recommended improvements to the sanitation of the student bathrooms.

“The adolescent girls are comfortable now, and use and change the sanitary napkins as they need on school premises, without any difficulties with privacy,” said Dr Govindaraju. “Attendance at the school has improved very significantly.”

Importantly, the impact of the project has stretched beyond the school. The sanitary napkin machine has enabled women in the community and surrounding villages to take control of their hygiene and start to overcome the stigma attached to menstruation.

It’s enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Curtin and SEVAI

The Go Global India projects are planned, delivered and evaluated in collaboration with educators and health professionals from India’s Society for Education, Village Action and Improvement (SEVAI). SEVAI runs a collection of education facilities that aim to improve the social, economic and environmental conditions of families in need, through affordable, appropriate and environmentally sustainable solutions.