Soap is something that so many of us take for granted – but there are many people today who can’t afford it and don’t understand the benefits of hand washing.
Just ask Erin Zaikis. While working in rural northern Thailand in 2013, she first met children who didn’t even know what soap was. Upon Erin’s return to the US, she found that this problem in Thailand actually existed in many developing countries. In India, for example, more than 70 million people can’t afford soap.
The fact is that hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of infection and illness, and is more effective, yet cheaper, than any vaccine on the market. Thus, this lack of access to soap prevents children living in low socioeconomic and rural areas from reaching their full potential.
What’s more, while hundreds of millions of people are deprived from the health benefits of this cheap item, billions of gently used soap bars are tossed into overcrowded landfills each year, specifically from India’s high-end hotels.
This wastefulness prompted Erin to found Sundara, an innovative nonprofit that seeks to empower women and children through better hygiene and health care by connecting the surplus to the need.
The Sundara Approach
Sundara takes used soap bars before they hit the trash and cleans and sanitizes them so they are pathogen-free, can not transmit disease, and are fit for use again. They employ a holistic approach to soap recycling, relying on community members for leadership, giving dignified jobs to underprivileged women, and focusing on intensive hygiene education in a sustainable movement to reduce preventable hygiene related death and disease.
Sundara believes in getting the community involved to solve their own hygiene issues. They hire locals as their employees and community hygiene ambassadors. The organization listens to them and allows them to create their hygiene modules to be culturally effective. Education is a lot more powerful if it comes from someone who looks like you, speaks your language, and has had shared experiences.
Women in the countries Sundara works face difficulties in finding dignified jobs, so the organization insists that their employees are women from underprivileged backgrounds. Sundara aims to empower them not only economically but socially, giving them positions of power as community hygiene ambassadors. Local women are Sundara’s biggest allies in reducing preventable hygiene related deaths.
Sundara is encouraging a societal shift in every community they work in. The organization does that by having their female hygiene ambassadors conduct regular free hygiene demonstrations to teach adults and children alike about soap’s uses and its importance. This knowledge is really what empowers that community and allows good hygiene habits to stick.
Through recycling soap, Sundara has rescued thousands of kilograms of waste from ending up in overcrowded landfills – but more importantly they’ve brought soap to those who couldn’t afford it, given economic opportunity to unemployed women, and seen increased rates of hand-washing in all the communities they work in.
Sundara’s main soap recycling workshop is located in Ashte, a rural tribal village 4 hours north of Mumbai. Sundara has trained 3 women to recycle soap full time and 26 local women to become local hygiene ambassadors. Each month these women deliver soap and hygiene training to over 2,000 children. They also deliver soap and hygiene training for adults and children at medical centers in the Kalwa slums.
Sundara has hired 10 victims of domestic violence in Mubende district who have received full hygiene ambassador training. Additionally, the women are trained in bar and liquid soap making, so they have a marketable skill to support themselves and their families. The women are employed to recycle soap from several hotels in Kampala, with the new bars being donated to underprivileged local families.
Sundara works with local Burmese families to recycle soap waste from Yangon’s hotels. The soap is distributed, along with simple hygiene classes, to orphanages, juvenile detention centers, and communities of people with leprosy in Yangon, Bago and Bagan.
If you think that Sundara is awesome (we sure do!) and want to support their mission, consider making a monetary donation! You can also learn more about current volunteer and internship opportunities on their website.
Alternatively, if you’re getting married and want to use your wedding to bring health and education to women and children in rural areas, you can also create a charitable wedding registry that supports Sundara’s work!