Meet The Entrepreneur Empowering Underprivileged Women With Reusable Sanitary Pads

Anja told SAYS that she never imagined where her small business idea would have landed her today.

Cover image via Anja Juliah Abu Bakar (Provided to SAYS) & Athena Empowers (Facebook)

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Meet Anja Juliah Abu Bakar, an entrepreneur with a big heart

Anja is the founder of Athena Empowers, a social enterprise dedicated to fighting period poverty and empowering women through education

It started humbly as a small business selling environmentally-friendly, reusable sanitary pads in 2008.

Now producing 100,000 reusable pads every six weeks and having changed the lives of countless underserved Malaysians, Anja told SAYS that she never imagined where her small business idea would have landed her today.

Speaking to SAYS, the 48-year-old shared that she kickstarted her reusable pad business after stumbling upon an online story of a mother who homemade cloth pads for her daughter as part of their zero-waste lifestyle

Seeing the promising potential of reusable pads, she set off to source some material and find some local tailors to help bring her idea to life. However, she was quickly turned away with her request.

"They laughed at me and asked me why I needed to make reusable pads when I could just buy disposable ones," she said.

A stroke of luck eventually led Anja to meet an ex-convict and fashion designer who was willing to design and create the first prototype of Anja's reusable pads.

"He made me 37 cloth pads with the fabric I first bought, and I didn't sell them but gave them to friends and acquaintances to try. I asked them to come back to me with feedback in three months."

However, within a month, she received rave reviews from many women who were happy to buy the washable pads, and thus started her journey as a businesswoman.

Anja said she eventually left her human resources executive job at an oil and gas company to pursue her business full time in 2012.

The turning point for Anja that led to a burning passion to help young women in underprivileged communities was when she learnt that menstruation was a hindrance to the extreme poor

"I was asked to sponsor some reusable pads to a rural Orang Asli community in Sabah one day," she said. "At first I was hesitant because I was running a new business. But I started finding out more about them and instead wondered what more I could do."

"Because for these girls, they would rather spend their money to buy bread that can last them a week than to buy proper sanitary pads," she explained.

Anja added that because of periods, many girls would also rather miss school, amounting up to about 60 days of schooling lost in a year.

"Some of them even dropped out of school when they could not keep up and developed low self esteem issues when they accidentally stained their school uniforms," she said.

"Something as simple as buying sanitary products was a luxury for these girls."

Donating 33 sets of sanitary kits to the community in Sabah was the start of Anja's social work as she felt compelled to encourage these students to complete their education.

Eventually partnering with two friends, Anja established Athena Empowers as a social enterprise, funding their social missions with the sales of their now expanded line of reusable sanitary products

The hypoallergenic bamboo fabric pads now come in various colours and sizes and are priced between RM21 and RM40, where every sale contributes to their outreach programmes tackling period poverty and empowering women.

Anja, through Athena Empowers, has worked with the same restless energy since to run educational programmes and sponsor pads to those in need, having helped Orang Asli communities all over Malaysia, including in Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Johor, Melaka, and Pahang.

The social entrepreneur's efforts have earned her many accolades

Anja was listed as one of Malaysia's Top 10 Female Social Entrepreneurs in 2016, awarded Outstanding ASEAN Women Entrepreneur in the same year, received a Star Malaysia Golden Heart Award in 2017, and was even invited to the White House in 2019 as recognition of her work in women's economic empowerment by former US President Donald Trump's senior advisor, Ivanka Trump.

Currently, she also coaches women who wish to start their own social enterprises as the president of the Malaysian Chamber of Social Entrepreneur Development, a body that is dedicated to improving the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in Malaysia.

Anja (seated, fourth from right) and 17 others were invited to the White House in September 2019 by former US President Donald Trump's senior advisor Ivanka Trump.

Image via Wiki Impact

Besides running the all-women based enterprise Athena Empowers, Anja has also since founded the Sisterhood Alliance, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that advocates social change by empowering young girls with life skills.

When asked how the public could help support her in her efforts, the environmentally-conscious businesswoman replied that she simply asks women to be open to trying reusable sanitary products.

"I know many women may be scared to see blood, but you can always start small with a pantyliner when your flow is less. Even starting small can help reduce waste going into landfills," she said.

SAYS is featuring inspiring stories of extraordinary Malaysian changemakers in collaboration with Wiki Impact

Wiki Impact is an online platform dedicated to the impact industry. They share stories and data on issues that matter, highlighting impact-driven organisations and changemakers on the ground. Categories include poverty alleviation, social justice, gender equality, healthcare and education for all, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, impact influencers, and more!

Find out more here.

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