In 2013, I embarked on what would be one of the most amazing journeys of my life. After nursing my husband through two bouts of cancer, we decided that a chemical free, organic life was the way to go. We built our eco house and garden in the Adelaide Hills, and the puzzle was nearly complete. I had managed to eradicate chemicals from nearly every part of our lives, but the laundry was the one place that seemed to evade my hippy clutches! I decided that I would put my crunchy brain into action and scour the planet for a natural alternative. One that could be used on my extensive veggie garden safely, and finally rid my family of anything potentially harmful.
After much research I discovered our now infamous balls of love… Soapberries! But for me personally, there were several criteria that were ‘non negotiables’ when sourcing and choosing the best possible supply line. Firstly I wanted the berries to be certified organic. To me, especially given our history of health issues, I wanted to know that there were no chemicals used in the growing process. Secondly, but arguably most importantly I wanted to know that the workers and communities involved in the harvest of our berries were being treated fairly and supported in every aspect possible. From a humanitarian perspective, the people who live in the remote Himalayan communities are the ones upon whom we rely entirely. Without them and their ultimate wellbeing… we would not be able to enjoy the many environmental, health and social benefits of these amazing little berries!
After satisfying all of my stringent criteria, and the ever growing popularity of soapberries in the marketplace, it was not until late in 2016 that I was able to visit the Himalayan communities face to face. A gruelling 2 day road trip from Kathmandu through the most death defying terrain was ahead of me before I would reach my destination. What awaited me was not something that I had prepared myself for at all. I knew that the 2015 earthquake had devastated much of Nepal physically, emotionally and financially, and I was very much aware of the sheer poverty that engulfs every corner of the country. But I was still not prepared for what lay ahead.
One cultural difference that immediately stood out to me was the disparity between the roles of males and females in Nepal. The women are responsible for the hard labour, domestic duties, raising the family and also animal rearing. As confronting as this was for me to witness first hand, I quickly reminded myself that it was the norm and it was not a situation that could be changed in any way. I sometimes like to think that I can change the world… but in reality it just doesn’t work like that!
After our gruelling journey, we finally met with our co-operative and their leaders in a small clearing among modest buildings within a village in the far West of Nepal. I was very careful and respectful with my words and actions in this largely male dominated society. Being a female business owner would inherently bring about a level of cultural resistance. As we chatted (via translator) with the group, we enquired as to the ways in which we as a company could assist them further. Very quickly we were presented with several seemingly ‘pre chosen’ young men who we could potentially financially support, thus allowing them to gain an education in the city. One by one, young boys were introduced to us. Proudly appealing to our generosity and compassion. They were also perhaps also a bit curious as to why these ‘Westerners’ were actually here. The boys themselves, and the rapidly gathering crowd had a deep and desperate look in their eyes. But my attention was drawn off to the side of the group… (listening and observing silently and intently) were some of the wives, mothers and daughters of the co-operative. Their brightly coloured clothing and calm disposition hid a very real sadness. It was a sadness that we discovered later was all too prevalent in these remote Himalayan communities, and is one that I was deeply affected by.
I enquired as to the situation with health care within the communities, and if there was any way in which we would be able to help them directly. The men highlighted the fact that their women were all affected in some way by ill health, and that they were actually at a loss as to what they should do. The men felt visibly uncomfortable speaking of it, and a great sense of shame swept over the once clam faces of the women. Their heads dropped, and tears began to well up their eyes. I knew immediately that this was what we needed to help with. This was something that I knew we could change. Surely?
The fact is, that there is an overwhelming health crisis among the female population in remote areas of Nepal, which has for decades gone largely unspoken and thus untreated. There is an inherent shame that comes with female health issues especially, and this coupled with the cultural responsibilities of women has created a dire heath situation.
Part of the problem stems from the age at which females first give birth, and the second major issue is the complete lack of postpartum recovery time granted to women. Given the responsibility of the hard work falls to women… the longer they spend recovering, the longer the family, domestic, and farming duties go unattended. It is sheer survival in these remote areas, and it becomes a matter of life and death should the women not return to work as soon as possible. All of us women who have given birth know that recovery and healing time is essential. I know personally if I had attempted to do anything too strenuous after giving birth to my children… it would have been disastrous! Prolapse and obstetric fistulas are the two most prevalent issues that arise from this cultural expectation, and both of those conditions lead to ongoing physical, social and emotional damage. Women are made to feel ‘dirty’ and isolated, not to mention the relentless extreme physical pain they are then forced to endure for the rest of their lives.
Soon after we realised the potential to really make a difference was there, a few of the women requested to meet with us in private the following morning. They would then be able to speak freely about the real problems without the pressure imposed by speaking in such a public forum, and without the men present. They also needed to begin the lengthy walk back to their individual villages as the day was coming to an end. The next morning was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. One that will stay with me forever.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess I just assumed that the same handful of women would come, and we might chat over a coffee and hopefully develop an understanding of the real problems, and how we could make a difference. After all… these were the women who harvest our berries, and are arguably the most integral part of the entire process. They rely solely on the income generated by the sale of soapberries. So we as not only a business, but a community of ethical and like minded consumers have a moral obligation to support these women in whichever way we can.
It was around 10am, and we spotted a large line of women trekking through the narrow pathways towards our modest accommodation. Females of all ages, and from several different villages. From the elderly, teenagers, very young and several with babies strapped tightly to their bodies. I soon realised that they were all coming to meet with us in the hope that we could indeed help them. All of a sudden, the reality of the situation hit me like a tonne of bricks. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t totally overwhelmed and very emotional. These women travelled up to seven hours, through the extreme Himalayan mountains, in the wee hours of the morning to reach us. Hours that would usually be spent tending to the very tasks that had caused the health issues we were there to discuss. They were full of hope. Hope that fell on my shoulders.
We all filed into a room which was entirely too small for that number of women, but the physical closeness further forged our unspoken relationship. We shared no common language, but we had a mutual understanding that only women can ‘get’. No words needed to be spoken that day. The look in their eyes was enough.
We did eventually communicate via the technological assistance of Google! The women shared stories of pain, humiliation and their experiences with several NGOs that had visited infrequently, and without any real focus on healthcare. Their non-existent medical history was particularly troubling, and it was obvious that several of them could not even sit without enduring extreme pain. They smiled occasionally, but the smiles were not that of happiness… rather they were smiles which showed a tiny glimmer of hope. They locked eyes with me intently, and as if communicating in some extra sensory way… begging me to ease their pain.
I made a promise that day. A promise to help those women in any way I could. I looked them in the eye and told them I would be there for them. With the naivety of my own inexperience, I would soon learn that Nepal and the political, physical, social and financial constraints inherent in a country like that, would all become hurdles that I needed to overcome. There was so much learning to come my way. Learning that would take place in the comfort of my lovely home, with my 4 beautiful healthy children and my first world health care system. I was used to working hard to achieve a goal. Being a business owner gives you a feeling of achievement, but it also imparts a great deal of responsibility to act ethically and morally so as to ensure the wellbeing of all those involved in every part of our supply and employment chain. It was my obligation no matter the hurdles in my way.
Behind the scenes, we have been working tirelessly to find the perfect fit to fulfil my promise to these women. We needed a not for profit organisation that has direct health care programmes on the ground in the remote areas of Nepal. But to further narrow our search… it needed to be specifically female health care so as to reach our very special women.
Finally our team found an amazing organisation called ‘Open Heart International’ (OHI). They are an Australian based charity that operates with extraordinary passion and commitment in developing countries. They offer doctors free of charge in a variety of surgical areas, to provide hope and relief to thousands of people who do not have access to basic healthcare. The specific OHI project we are supporting is Women’s healthcare in Nepal, where they provide preventative treatment and surgery to women with uterine prolapse and obstetric fistula. The women we are supporting through our donations are at risk of these two debilitating conditions due to early pregnancy, improper delivery techniques, poor child spacing practices, prolonged labour, unsupervised births and resuming heavy work too soon after childbirth. OHI are our perfect fit and we have sponsored two surgeries so far and are committed in an ongoing capacity, to donate a portion from the sale of every soapberry bag, to OHI! Myself and the That Red House team are ecstatic to be able to help these women and excited by the ongoing work OHI will be able to provide through our donations.
That Red House, Founder
Click here for more information on the work of Open Heart International.