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4 ways a recycled bar of soap is creating change in Uganda

By Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara Fund

Chances are you’ve got a few of ‘em in your bathroom right now. But for many of the world’s poor, a bar of soap is seen as a luxury that they simply can’t afford.

How can that be?

Well, for those who make $1 or less a day (commonly referred to as the world’s “bottom billion”), every cent earned gets spent on direct needs like food and water, leaving little to be saved for the most basic preventable healthcare available: soap.

Take for example, a country like Uganda, where the price of a cheaply made bar of soap is relatively expensive for most residents outside Kampala—hovering between 20 and 50 cents.

At a recent community meeting in Uganda’s Mubende district, one mother—Winnie—complained that the price of soap was too high for her to afford to purchase monthly. She admitted that she hadn’t used soap at her home for the last two weeks, she only uses water for bathing and cleaning utensils, and she never washed her hands after visiting a toilet.

Winnie and a group of women at a tippy tap, a hands-free, foot-lever-operated hand washing station. (Photo credit: Sundara)

Winnie and a group of women at a tippy tap, a hands-free, foot-lever-operated hand washing station. (Photo credit: Sundara/YICE)

And ironically, people like Winnie are the ones who need it the most—that behavior is continuing to kill their children and make them sick. Most of the world’s bottom billion are either living in crowded urban slums or remote, rural villages, both of which lack access to regular trash collection, latrines, and health clinics, making them the worst breeding grounds for preventable hygiene-related diseases. But these places also have great opportunities ahead: It’s precisely here where interventions of regular hand washing with soap can save the most lives. How?

Preventing cases of diarrhea and pneumonia:
According to the CDC, 1.8 million children will die this year from diarrhea and pneumonia. Both can be greatly reduced with regular hand washing with soap! If we made soap and hand-washing education universal, we could prevent a third of diarrhea-related deaths and a sixth of deaths from pneumonia.

A group of women working together to make soap in Uganda. (Photo credit: Sundara)

A group of women working together to make soap in Uganda. (Photo credit: Sundara/YICE)

Making landfills smaller, one bar at a time:
More than 2 million bars of partially used hotel soap are thrown away every day in the United States. The main culprit? The hotel industry! We’ve all been to a hotel room with bars of soap that are replaced daily. Did you ever stop to think where that old bar went? I hate to break it to you, but it probably ended up in the trash.

Yet what many don’t know is that soap is one of the easiest substances to recycle: It’s easier than paper, plastic, metal, and everything else we currently recycle now. If we can take our waste and turn it into treasure at a minimal cost, whilst simultaneously benefitting the environment, why wouldn’t we?

Empowering women as community leaders:
But simply handing out bars of recycled soap isn’t the solution. This must be accompanied by community education, so recipients of the soap know how to use it, when to use it, and just what it will protect them against. And what better way to do that than to train local women as hygiene ambassadors to transmit this education to their husbands, children, and neighbors? Community-led education has been proven time and time again: It spreads quickly and empowers locals to take their health into their own hands—in this case, literally.

“Good health is what everyone wants,” says Gertrude Nalumiya, a widow and single mother who works in the Mubende district in Uganda, and provides her neighbors with soap and hygiene education. “When I fall sick, I am not happy. When my child is sick, I am not happy. Even when my neighbor is sick, I am not happy. It’s been a blessing to help the entire community be healthy.”

Gertrude working to make and recycle soap. (Photo credit: Sundara)

Gertrude working to make and recycle soap. (Photo credit: Sundara/YICE)

Offering dignified employment for those in need:
How do we make a system sustainable? At Sundara, we teach local women in need how to do it and make sure they are paid a fair, local wage. Many of these women are widows, single mothers, or victims of domestic violence, and this is the first time in their life they’ve been employed and been able to provide for their families. We are empowering those that have been looked over for most of their life. The benefits of a dignified job to deserving people like Mary Nanyonga, a divorced mother of three and Sundara hygiene ambassador, are impossible to measure.

“I searched and searched. I needed an opportunity to be employed,” Mary says. “Now that I am, I can work on behalf of vulnerable people. If I don’t work for my people, who will work for them?”

A recycled soap is so much more than what meets the eye: It can help prevent death and disease, allows for community empowerment, saves waste, AND provides employment. It’s one simple solution to a big problem—and benefits every stakeholder in the process. The world is still full of many inequalities, but can’t we agree that we all deserve to wash our hands?

Sundara works in Uganda along with its local partner YICE to train victims of domestic violence in soap making, soap recycling, and hygiene education so they become community hygiene ambassadors. Sundara also works in India and Myanmar, providing recycled soap and life-saving hygiene education for communities in need. Want to get involved and lend your hand to this cause? Visit sundarafund.org.

Read more about water and sanitation issues, then join us to help fight poverty and preventable disease!

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