Background: Diarrhea and acute respiratory infections (ARI) account for 30% of deaths among children displaced due to humanitarian emergencies. A wealth of evidence demonstrates that handwashing with soap prevents both diarrhea and ARI. While socially- and emotionally-driven factors are proven motivators to handwashing in non-emergency situations, little is known about determinants of handwashing behavior in emergency settings.
Methods: We conducted a qualitative investigation from June to August 2015 in a camp for internally displaced persons with a population of 6360 in the war-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We held key informant interviews with 9 non-governmental organizations and camp officials, in-depth interviews and rating exercises with 18 mothers of children < 5 years, and discussions with 4 groups of camp residents and hygiene promoters to identify motivators and barriers to handwashing.
Results: At the time of the study, hygiene promotion activities lacked adequate resources, cultural acceptability, innovation, and adaptation for sustained behavioral change. Lack of ongoing provision of hygiene materials was a major barrier to handwashing behavior. When hygiene materials were available, camp residents reported that the primary motivator to handwashing was to prevent illness, particularly diarrheal disease, with many mentioning an increased need to wash hands during diarrhea outbreaks. Emotionally- and socially-related motivators such as “maintaining a good image” and social pressure to follow recommended camp hygiene practices were also reported to motivate handwashing with soap. Residents who engaged in day labor outside the camp had limited exposure to hygiene messages and handwashing facilities. Interviewees indicated that the harsh living conditions forced residents to prioritize obtaining basic survival needs over good hygiene. Conclusions: Hygiene promotion in camp settings must involve preparedness of adequate resources and supplies and ongoing provision of hygiene materials so that vulnerable populations affected by emergencies can apply good hygiene behaviors for the duration of the camp’s existence. Compared to non-emergency contexts, illness based messages may be more effective in emergency settings where disease poses a current and ongoing threat. However, failure to use emotive and social drivers that motivate handwashing may present missed opportunities to improve handwashing in camps.