Goonj, Delhi (Warning: Some description of facts you are about to read may make you uncomfortable)
Goonj is not a place in Delhi. The name means echo of voices. It is a social enterprise that aspires to eliminate cloths poverty. Cloths poverty manifests in many ways. The only kind of clothing need that gets addressed by relief organizations around the world is when a natural disaster occurs. The more common killer of life and dignity has to do with lack of warm cloths. The man who started Goonj has an incredibly moving story.
There is another kind of cloths poverty that is completely off the radar of any and all well- meaning social organizations that Goonj recognizes and addresses. It is to make sanitary napkins available to women in the slums. Because women in need are ashamed to talk about it this need never gets addressed. Some families are so poor that they have only one piece of cloth that several women in the family share. In some cases they also share it with the neighbors. The piece of cloth is often the mark of the level of poverty of a household.
The issues for these women go beyond the availability of the piece of cloth. Even when they have the cloth there is no privacy for them to wash and dry. They wash them when no one is at the pump or well (water access is in public spaces) and dry them at night. By sunrise they take them down from the clothsline to hide it from others seeing it. Often they are damp and dusty when worn again. The consequences are infections and in some cases death.
Goonj attempts to solve this problem through their recycling program. They make sanitary napkins from donated garments, recycle cloths, and create local employment. The cloths are distributed to families as reward for work and not as donations. Some examples of cloth for work programs included digging wells or building a bridges, improving school attendance, clearing rocks from land to plant crop /save top soil erosion, etc.
A common misconception we have about clothing need relates to circumstances. After a natural disaster we often see tons of clothing donated to affected areas. The relief agencies often have to deal with the sorting challenges that we cannot see. Often a significant amount of cloths (30%) are not appropriate – warm caps given to people in warm climates, pants and shirts are sent to women who wear sarees, over size clothing, etc. The other challenge is the excess inventory. What people lose in a disaster is storage space. The second set of cloths to them at that point is therefore not useful. Goonj addresses all these challenges by sorting, recycling, and timely and distribution.
Something that the founder of Goonj said that will always stay with me. We who give away cloths don’t donate (we say we do), we discard them. Our discarded cloths become a resource and source of dignity to others only when given at the right time form and manner. And they dignify our discarded cloths and save resources by extending its life.
Visiting and talking to the folks who run this organization was a very moving experience…