A handwashing workshop in the village of Chamba, Himachal Pradesh, India. Sydney Kamen started SOAP in 2012, with the goal of cutting in half the number of children under the age of 5 who die around the world from diarrhea and respiratory infections. (photo from Sydney Kamen)
Every year, 1.8 million children under the age of 5 die from diarrhea and respiratory infections. This number could be cut in half with proper sanitation and handwashing – which is precisely the goal of a 20-year-old Jewish woman from Washington, D.C., Sydney Kamen.
Kamen is working to achieve this target via the nongovernmental organization SOAP (So Others Are Protected), which she established in 2012.
“If you reduce the number of cases and number of deaths, then you reduce the burden on the international public health system … and that funding can go elsewhere to build infrastructure, etc.,” Kamen told the Independent. “It’s inspiring to me to think about the incredible impact one simple solution could have on a global scale.”
Raised in a Reform Jewish home that stressed community service, Kamen is a junior at Dartmouth College, majoring in geography with a minor in global health and ethics.
“When I was in middle school,” she said, “I was in a club and it was about girls’ education. We partnered with this school in Kenya. Once a week, we’d Skype with them and get to know each other. That was my first exposure to the different life experiences of my age group around the world…. It became girls’ and women’s health later, which really segued into this world of global health and wealth disparities … which then led me to the field of development, where I am now.”
In high school, Kamen joined a team of college students in rural Thailand to study marginalized, at-risk youth on the Thailand-Myanmar border.
“What does a white, Jewish girl from Georgetown know about not having access to clean water or not having access to sanitation?” said Kamen. “Nothing at all. So, this was a very eye-opening experience for me.”
Kamen stayed with a host-family in which the mother worked as a nurse clinician at a small rural health clinic. The host-mom explained how frustrating it was to see so many kids coming into the clinic with diarrhea and respiratory infections, but not being equipped to help – there was not enough access to sanitation.
In this remote community, which was, in a sense, an unofficial refugee camp, the people repurposed many things made from plastic and found ways to reuse many items. So, when Kamen came to them with the idea of repurposing unused shards of soap from local hotels, the idea was well-received.
“When I first arrived in Thailand, I was staying at a hotel, getting acclimated,” said Kamen. “I used to always bring home the soap, shampoo and conditioner. And then, I was exposed to this disparity and was told that, no, they don’t have soap. I thought, this is a problem … perhaps with a very simple solution. Simple things are sometimes the hardest things to identify, just because they are so simple.
“It’s something that took some time to come together. It was something I felt strongly about and it was an issue that I saw as a grave injustice. I think access to sanitation is a human right. Of course, this is not something unique to rural Thailand, it’s a global problem – lack of access to sanitation is a huge problem.
“I saw this as something well worth exploring. I came home and started talking to people in Washington about it … and it all came from that. It was definitely a collaborative effort and it’s something that’s very important. You can’t make big changes alone. It’s all about the collaborative group effort.”
Kamen made the link between the hotels and the community and created a win-win situation. The hotel reduced its disposal costs and the community created a business from the repurposed soap. So far, 13 communities and 14 hotels have joined the project and each community has their own way of making it work.
“It’s all about community ownership,” said Kamen. “That’s very important to me. Some communities recycle it one way and do different things with it, and others do other things.”
Once the hotel reaches a sufficient amount of collected soap, the shards are transported to SOAP’s partner communities who then recycle the shards by melting and reshaping them. Ultimately, the product is used to promote sanitation and handwashing in the communities.
Besides providing a platform to support sustainable economic growth and financial independence, this initiative is also helping train women in business, building cooperatives, as well as offering the women some funds to learn about sanitation and how to clean the soap bars. This allows them to become health ambassadors of a sort in the community.
To date, more than 50,000 bars of soap have been distributed.
As for Kamen, while she hopes to one day work full-time on the project, her current goal, she said, is to “learn my place in this field and how to do it to the best of my ability … and to do so humbly and mindfully. Something I’ve become hyper-sensitive to as a student is the ‘white saviour complex’ … and I’m fearful of it becoming a part of my efforts, as I see [it] very prominently in other development initiatives.
“In school,” she added, “my hope is to become aware and knowledgeable of these practices as much as possible. But, my role now is to support the partnerships that have already been made.
“The thing is, it’s a very simple solution to a very large problem. This soap model, if you will, is very mobile. It’s easily tailored to meet community needs, which is very important to me. I want it to be a self-ownership type of thing, where communities support each other and do it themselves. It’s not a hand out. It’s not some white young American going over and teaching people how to wash their hands because there’s this ‘primitive’ divide.”
Interest in Kamen’s idea is growing in general, but most important to her is that one of her partner communities has reached out, saying they want to establish something like this in the community next door.
“It was their own initiative, not something I sought out to implement, which, to me, is the whole point,” said Kamen. “Hopefully, the ownership is assumed by the people who need it and the people who benefit from it. That’s all that matters to me.”
Recently, Kamen was named one of the 15 recipients of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
“I was incredibly honoured and excited,” she said. “The kind of support that award offers is incredible and generous. At the same time, as wonderful as this attention is, I think it’s important you do something good with it. It feels great, but it’s easy to get caught up in the accolades and what other people see and want for you.
“I really wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to share this story, but, also, I want to encourage my peers to learn about some of these global issues and think more deeply about our actions – especially those interested in development or international volunteerism.”
In her international development studies, Kamen found out that the U.S. military is one of the largest humanitarian actors in the world. As a Dartmouth student, she had the opportunity to become a reserve officer training corps cadet, which she opted to take to learn about the army.
“I grew up with the image of the military being a bunch of uneducated white guys who were trigger-happy and oil-hungry … which is not the case,” said Kamen. “This was the image I grew up with culturally.
“I figured it was time to learn the system from the inside and to humanize it. You can read all about the military and army in books, and you can talk to people about it, but why not try and understand it through experience? So, I joined the program with the hope of learning how it works and learning how they train future generations of leaders.
“I’ve been a part of it for just over two years now, and love what I’ve learned. The whole experience has been very humbling. I’ve learned about patriotism and what it means to serve, especially from my peers. But, I haven’t signed my contract yet, and that’s something I’m thinking about.”
For more information about SOAP, visit the NGO’s website, soothersareprotected.org.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.