By: Susan Bailey
Young Chan Myae looks up with a big smile on his face, proudly displaying a bar of soap to the camera as if it is a work of art. But it’s not a painting of soap, nor a photo nor a carving of soap- it is simply a real bar of soap. One that he made on a recent weekend workshop with Soap for Hope.
He is not alone in his enthusiasm. In several rural communities around Myanmar, people are getting excited about soap, the result of Soap for Hope’s recent campaign to promote better hygiene standards and education.
In developing countries, such as Myanmar, an alarmingly high number of deaths are still attributed to diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections and tuberculous. It is estimated that between 2-3 million children die each year from illness that could be prevented by hand washing. With little or no awareness of proper sanitation techniques and other preventative measures, many Myanmar residents are also at risk.
Enter Sundara, a US-based non-profit that aims to ‘reduce preventable hygiene-related diseases and deaths in vulnerable populations’. The group was established after the founder, Erika Zaikis, travelled to Thailand and met people who had never seen soap. Shocked at the skin diseases and ailments found by rural communities, she set off on a mission to educate locals on the importance of hygiene and create a sustainable solution to providing access to basic needs like soap. What started as a small-scale effort by one woman to improve the lives of one rural community quickly grew into a multi-country project called Soap for Hope.
Soap for Hope works as a multi-tiered approach. Firstly, there is waste reduction. Soap for Hope partners with hotels to collect soap bars left after guests’ check-out. Instead of throwing this soap away- a waste of several million tons worldwide per year- the used bars are recycled, cleaned and molded into new bars. The second layer of the program is education and training as the project employs volunteers from rural villages to work as trainers, providing them with in-depth hygiene education and visual materials that is then passed on to the village residents. Finally, Soap for Hope distributes the recycled bars to the villages, giving access to soap and other disinfectant materials for free.
Led in Myanmar by Htar Htar and Win Thuya, a deeply-passionate husband and wife team, the Soap for Hope project is helping thousands of Myanmar residents improve their health. Although not doctors, they have seen first-hand the impact that access to better hygiene standards can have on the lives of rural communities.
Since starting in May 2015, the program has worked with villages near Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay and inspired similar projects in Nay Pyi Taw and the Inle Lake region. Some key hotels have come on board to donate the leftover soap that, until now, was thrown away. The program participants were sceptical at first. Most were familiar with soap and hand washing but they did not want to spend money to obtain hygiene products. Now that Soap for Hope has provided the education and free materials, the locals are gaining interest. A few of the villages are almost self-sufficient. Soap for Hope delivers the leftover hotel soap and the residents take the initiative to clean, dice and press new bars for themselves. Community leaders and monks are all supportive and encouraging in the process.
While Thuya and Htar are happy with the results, they aim to do more. ‘We would like to reach more remote communities and increase our network of hygiene trainers’, said Htar Htar. In order to do so, the organization needs more donations from hotels and cruise ships as well as additional financial support for the outreach programs.
They hope to involve tourists and a stronger volunteer network in the future. ‘Soap for Hope is still relatively new in Myanmar and we want to make sure we grow in a sustainable manner’, Win Thuya commented. ‘We realise there is a lot of need throughout our country and a lot of people willing to donate their time and money. We are looking at how to maximize our impact before making any big moves forward but certainly we will accept any offer of financial or man-power donations.’
For now, kids like Chan Myae and hundreds of others are gaining the opportunity for a brighter, healthier future. And while this is certainly a step in the right direction, it is sad to think that these children were at risk over something so basic. As founder Erika Zaikis states ‘Soap recycling is so simple. We’re not waiting for some complicated vaccine. The solution to this problem already exists.’ She is right- unlike the bureaucracy and costly overheads faced by many NGO’s, Soap for Hope can deliver results quickly and with minimal cost. With the passion of Htar Htar and Thuya fuelling the project locally, there is no doubt that Soap for Hope will continue making a positive impact on the lives of Myanmar’s residents.
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