Sesame Street Muppet Raya Teaches Children Better Hygiene

The World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have enlisted the Sesame Street puppet to help spread the word about sanitation.


Nonprofits, governments and health officials in developing countries have been struggling for years to clear a major hurdle in improving sanitation: convincing people of the need for and showing them how to properly use toilets, toilet paper and soap. In recent years the strategy has shifted, with organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank Group recognizing that children may be the best hope for changing a country’s sanitation behaviors. To find a mouthpiece for this new approach, they reached out to the authority on informal childhood education: Sesame Street. The global community’s new spokesperson for sanitation is a six-year-old Muppet named Raya.

The green puppet, who has dark braided hair and wears a tan embroidered tunic over red trousers, was designed to connect with viewers in a variety of developing nations, where she’ll teach kids about the importance of proper sanitation through New York–based nonprofit Sesame Workshop’s television show, as well as printed materials. Sesame introduced Raya at the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in New Delhi last year in the midst of a 30-month research project it’s conducting with the Gates Foundation to better understand how to communicate basic water, sanitation and hygiene information to children and their caregivers.

After the study’s two-year mark passed last year, Stephen Sobhani, vice president, international, at Sesame Workshop, says the researchers “found that there are basic building blocks and messages and behaviors that can be conveyed in multiple countries at the same time, be they rural, urban, school based or home based.” Enter Raya, who has quickly become “the defining character of Sesame Workshop as a global organization and our ambassador to the global health community,” Sobhani notes.

Sesame Street has long been lauded for having just the right mix of entertainment and education for its audience, which is generally children eight and younger. Most Americans recognize characters like Big Bird and Cookie Monster, who have become household names over the show’s 45-year history, but fewer know of Sesame’s two dozen locally produced co-productions in other countries, some of which have been around for almost as long. Over the past two decades the show has expanded its mission from teaching children words, numbers and concepts like kindness to tackling heavier topics, including AIDS and obesity.

In 2002, in response to South Africa’s battle with HIV/AIDS, the version of Sesame Street broadcast in that nation introduced the first HIV-positive Muppet, an asymptomatic orphan named Kami who reflects and teaches her audience. Kami is still one of the most popular Sesame characters in South Africa and Nigeria, and Sobhani explains that she set the tone for how Sesame Workshop could make a statement on global health issues. U.S. audiences will be more familiar with Cookie Monster’s shift to healthier eating, as part of the 2006 introduction of the Health Habits for Life segment on the American version of the show, in which the furry blue Muppet often reminds viewers that “cookie is a sometimes food.” Sesame Workshop added the segment to help combat rising childhood obesity in the U.S. “We’re not just talking about children’s issues; we’re talking to children about issues,” Sobhani says.

But if Raya’s appearance isn’t an oddity, her favorite subject may be. She’s not afraid to talk about poop— where to do it, how to do it and what to do afterward. “What’s the one thing that everyone does, but lots of people don’t like to talk about? Okay, this isn’t really a riddle. The answer is pooping!” Raya (or the voice actor who plays her) said in an e-mail to II. “We all go, so let’s not be shy about it.”


Some viewers will cringe, but Raya’s creators say a little discomfort is nothing compared to what they and the World Bank call “the most superlative global health challenge of our time.” Lack of water sanitation and hygiene are responsible for a growing number of diseases in developing countries; Bangladesh, India and Nigeria, where Raya recently made her debut, are in the top ten.

Unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation contribute to about 88 percent of deaths from diarrheal diseases, according to the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in developing countries more than 800,000 children under the age of five perish from sanitation-related illnesses each year.

A 2013 survey by child development researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that children who watched co-productions of Sesame Street had improved learning outcomes. The show is an “enduring example of a scalable and effective early childhood educational intervention,” the researchers wrote. That’s what Sesame, the Gates Foundation and the World Bank are counting on with their sanitation Muppet. Raya’s next stop will be Indonesia, Vietnam or one of the other nations among the ten most afflicted by water- and sanitation-related disease.