FREMONT, California — Around the world, 2.3 billion people lack access to basic hygiene products such as soap, toilet paper, etc. Although it often seems like a foreign problem to many, limited to low-income nations, it is also rampant in developed countries. In fact, in the U.K., hygiene poverty affects up to 3.2 million adults. As the cost of basic sanitation items continues to rise, it becomes even harder for those in poverty to keep themselves clean. However, one organization is looking to change that. The Hygiene Bank is a charity from the U.K. that hopes to bring an end to hygiene poverty. So far, it has more than 626 volunteers and has supplied upwards of a million hygiene basics to those in need.
About The Hygiene Bank
Ruth Brock, the current CEO of the Hygiene Bank, told The Borgen Project the story behind the charity. Lizzy Hall founded the charity in 2018 after watching a film portraying the realities of living in poverty. After watching it, Lizzy visited her local food bank where it was clear that the issues of hygiene poverty depicted in the film were just as dire in real life. She decided to send out a message to collect hygiene products for her local food bank, and thus, the Hygiene Bank began its journey.
Today, the Hygiene Bank collects hygiene products through more than 1,200 public drop-off points where people can donate products. It then partners with schools, food banks, refuges and more to bring hygiene products to people who need them the most. So far, the Hygiene Bank has partnered with more than 1,500 Community Partners.
Why Hygiene Poverty?
For many low-income people, their situation often forces them to decide between paying their rent, their tuition, buying groceries or keeping themselves clean. As Brock describes, “Hygiene poverty is uniquely oppressive… It affects everything from our ability to connect and socialize with friends and family to our ability to participate in work and school. In this way, it contributes to the cycle of poverty by blocking the traditional routes out of poverty.”
Brock’s account of poverty is fully supported by the Hygiene Bank’s research and findings. In 2022, the organization was able to pioneer a research project on the impact and effects of hygiene poverty, the first of its kind in the U.K. Its research found that hygiene poverty had a tremendous effect on one’s mental and physical well-being. Three in five people experiencing hygiene poverty reported feeling lonely and isolated, with half the respondents feeling symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Stigma and Shame
Many respondents also reported feeling an intense amount of shame and stigma due to their lack of access to hygiene. For these people, feeling embarrassed, shameful and judged was often a barrier to reaching out for help. Not only that, but the stigma surrounding the issue also comes with feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety.
Brock shared many stories of people who felt stressed and ashamed because they were in hygiene poverty. One person shared: “I had nothing when we came to the refuge. I was scared and emotionally battered. I had no money and didn’t know how I would wash the children or brush our teeth. My son wets the bed and that was going to be a problem.” The stigma surrounding hygiene poverty is often what leaves people trapped in that cycle, and something the Hygiene Bank hopes to solve in the future.
The Hygiene Bank’s Community Impact
In the beginning, the Hygiene Bank was one woman and the idea that everyone deserves to feel clean. Since then, the Hygiene Bank has grown exponentially into not only a charity but a social movement bringing awareness and resources to such an underlooked issue. As Brock described, “The Hygiene Bank has built the foundations of a sustainable movement for change, and I am incredibly fortunate to be tasked with steering the movement into the next stage of our journey to end hygiene poverty.”
The charity has provided aid to those facing hygiene poverty by providing them with hygiene products. For them, access to proper hygiene is a tremendous relief. One recipient said, “I was so ashamed I felt like I’d totally failed in life. Then I got help. Just having a bed and a shower with shampoo and shower gel was such a relief.” For others, it’s completely life-changing.
For people like Adam, who barely attended school and had only online friends, access to hygiene allowed him to turn his life around. As Brock described, “[Adam’s] key worker gave him some basics from the Hygiene Bank and said it was ‘instantly transformative.’ Adam’s school attendance rose to 100%, he made new friendships and ultimately went on to university.”
Reducing the Stigma
Although providing people with hygiene products is immensely impactful, the Hygiene Bank has also made strides to stop hygiene poverty on a systematic level. Its research project was one step towards this, as it allowed the Hygiene Bank to understand the driving forces behind hygiene poverty. The organization has also worked towards reducing the stigma around the issue by encouraging discussion and educating others on the topic.
The organization also worked with Boots U.K. to develop lessons and activity plans for schools to help children learn about hygiene poverty and how it affects one’s well-being. These plans are available for download for free on The Hygiene Bank’s website.
Ultimately, the Hygiene Bank is a grassroots organization fighting to improve the lives of those living in hygiene poverty. It believes that feeling clean should not be a luxury or privilege, but a right. Since its founding, the organization has made an immense impact on the community, people’s lives, and on the issue of hygiene poverty. It continues to be a substantial force for change in the U.K. community and across the world in the fight against poverty.
– Padma Balaji