The world is full of unfortunate people, but luckily it is also full of charitable people. Everyday we come across ads that invite people to donate food, clothes, notebooks and pencils, and, of course, money.
It is far less common for people to give away underwear.
Travelling in the Arabian peninsula, I met a lady--I will call her Jenny, as she prefers to remain anonymous--who is doing just that: buying panties in bulk to give away to poor women in India. Jenny is a nurse from the southern Indian state of Kerala, working in the Gulf. She is one of the many Keralite women who migrated abroad for work and have become the primary breadwinners to enhance their own family situation at home. Jenny, however, is not only taking care of her family and relatives, but also of her larger community in a very quiet, subtle, yet stunning way.
I found out about Jenny's project by coincidence when I asked her what things she would take back home when going for an annual month-long leave from her duty. She turned her eyes towards the sky, contemplating her mental list.
"10 kg of milk powder, because the quality is better here, then 120 or 200 panties ..."
"Wait, why do you need 120 or 200 panties?" I asked, startled.
And then she told me the story. Being half Indian, half Jewish, Jenny had her own share of struggles in life, including seeking refuge in the US. She learnt during her childhood that in a difficult financial situation it is always easier to find food, clothes and school supplies than simple underwear. This is more than a question of comfort and convenience--as a nurse, Jenny knows very well that inadequate hygiene among the poor due to lack of bathroom facilities is directly related to many women's health conditions, such as uterus inflammations and even cervical cancer.
But by distributing the panties in a very unique way, Jenny has gone a step further. Unlike charity organisations that seek to mobilise significant numbers of donors and resources to be distributed to as many people as possible, Jenny is providing panties all on her own, one by one. She buys the panties in packages of five, because they are cheaper. Then she unpacks them, pairs them according to different sizes, wraps them in a bit of used paper, and thoughtfully adds a little note to each.
"The note says, in my own language, 'Keep it sacred'!" Jenny says, leaning towards me, almost whispering the words.
When in Kerala, Jenny takes half an hour every day to go to places where she is sure to find some women in need. The bus station, for example, is full of poor people. And so are hospitals. Riding the bus or strolling through the hospital halls, Jenny approaches women that she feels she can help. She strikes a conversation with them, asks them about their life and offers to buy them a meal. Most of them would refuse--In India, food will find you one way or another, somebody will give it to you sooner or later, she adds to her story by way of clarification. Just before moving on to chat to another person, Jenny would finally offer them a pack of panties, saying, "Here is a gift for you, but open it only later, when I'm gone, but please do remember that Jenny asked you to keep this sacred!"
Seeing a shadow of puzzlement on my face, she explains: "It's in the hope of making these girls and women give it a second thought, before they take the panties off in exchange for money!"
Not even her closest friends know about Jenny's endeavour, and the only person aware of her project is her husband, who keeps discovering the boxes of panties whenever unpacking the goods she brings from the Gulf.
"If they knew, they would think I am mad. They would tell me to focus on my own family, rather than spending so much time and money on some strangers," Jenny says seriously. "I am an obedient person. If someone tells me three times to stop doing something, I will stop. But I don't want anybody to tell me three times to stop giving away these panties."
Jenny doesn't keep a count of how many panties she has given away until now. Nobody even knows that her actions have alleviated women's health problems or decreased the level of prostitution in Kerala. But from where I sit, Jenny is taking care of her fellow women by attending to a very sensitive issue in a very personal way. Perhaps her example is one from which charity organisations, large and small, could learn.