I was working in rural Thailand at a school for refugee children from Burma. I went to the restroom and when I came out to wash my hands, I realized there was no soap.
I asked the group of students clustered around me if they had any soap at the school and just saw blank stares. One of the older girls – she was 13 years old – looked up at me and whispered in her accented English, “What is soap?”
I didn’t know how to explain something so basic. My jaw dropped and my mind was blown. I was meeting children and teenagers who had lived their whole lives without something I had been taking for granted every single day of mine.
So I drove to a store an hour away, bought out their supply of soap and conducted an impromptu hand-washing workshop in the village. However many of the children just fumbled the bars of soap in their hands, scratching it with their nails, unsure of what to do. In that moment, I felt helpless. I left that school thinking there was so much more to be done.
It doesn’t get the attention it deserves and so I’m here to speak on its behalf.
Soap is so critical because beyond keeping us clean and smelling nice, it actually saves lives. Diarrhea and pneumonia are the biggest killers of children in the developing world, taking the lives of almost 3.5 million children each year. Yet, they don’t have to: diarrhea and pneumonia are both entirely preventable illnesses.
So what’s the answer? It’s so simple.
Hand washing is a low cost, low technology solution to preventing these childhood deaths – more effective and cheaper than any vaccine. It’s the most basic medicine in the world.
A bar of soap might seem so inconsequential to you and me, but to some people, it’s the difference between life and death. In fact, there are millions of people today who don’t know what soap is and have never used it before. Unilever estimates there are 70 million of those just in India alone. Can you imagine seven New York Cities worth of people who have never used soap?
That’s where Sundara comes in.
We are India’s first and only soap recycling initiative. We are proud to empower women, by sourcing underprivileged women from some of Mumbai’s poorest slums for our work and education trainings. For most, this is their first job they’ve ever held. We collect soap from luxury hotels in the city and take it to our workshop where the women are trained to process and sanitize bar soap. The final product is distributed to schools in urban slums and rural villages a few hours outside the city. The soap is always accompanied by Sundara sponsored community education lessons on hand-washing for parents and children alike – because when knowledge is spread, these good habits have a better chance of sticking.
We at Sundara believe that basic hygiene is a right and not a privilege. As we increase the demand and availability of soap and educate about the benefits of regular hand-washing, we give children like the ones I met a better chance to stay in school and reach adulthood. I hope you agree with me that soap is something that everyone – no matter where they live – deserves to have.
About the blogger:
Erin Zaikis is the founder of the Sundara Fund – an organization that works to provide sustainable hygiene solutions to underserved communities around the globe. Active in Haiti and Ghana, the Sundara Fund most recently expanded to India where it is running the country’s first and only soap recycling initiative, training underprivileged women to become community hygiene activists and create healthier societies. To learn more or get involved, please visit www.sundarafund.org.