“WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?” our teacher poses.
A sudden silence descends in the classroom as we all look at each other in bewilderment. And then some voices are heard shouting the words “doctor, lawyer, teacher.”
We were only 14 then and suffice to say, quite directionless. At least I was. Now imagine a girl of the same age who hasn’t only dropped out of school but has also lost about 20 per cent of her school hours every year since hitting puberty. Where would she go? What would she do?
“It’s not fair,” laments Anja Juliah Abu Bakar before we’re interrupted by the barista serving us coffee. The founder and social impact director of Athena Empowers has got a heavy responsibility on her shoulders but her jovial disposition belies that. Ever since she discovered from a missionary who was working in rural Sabah that many young girls from the rural areas miss out on at least five days of studies a month due to menses or drop out entirely due to the fear of not being able to catch up, Anja has been championing their cause — namely to keep them in school.
Her strong belief in education as the key to empowerment for girls is her strongest motivator. “It was actually my late father who instilled it in me. I was never good in my studies, but he always told me that you don’t need good grades to be a good leader. But you do need knowledge, so read,” recalls Anja.
Together with Hasnur Hanafiah (chief executive director) and Fazlina Ahmad Fuad (business development director), the trio aspire to “liberate” girls by encouraging them to better understand their bodies as they reach puberty and providing them with the relevant sanitary products to enable them to live a more fulfilling life.
Funding for the programmes is achieved through partnerships and sale of their eco-friendly reusable sanitary products. “With every sale of our sanitary products, we’ll sponsor one girl in need. So the more we sell, the more we can give,” explains Anja.
But, how much could they really donate? It was this quandary that led Anja to explore other alternatives that would be more beneficial and sustainable.
PASSION FOR SELLING
“I’ve always loved selling stuff to friends and family and used to go on short trips to Bandung or Vietnam to buy things that we could sell,” shares the 44-year-old. Her passion for entrepreneurship has given her an acute sense of knowing what would be the next big thing.
In 2006, while trawling a forum, she came across a thread by an American housewife who spoke about her innovative invention — washable sanitary pads made from old T-shirts for her daughter who just hit puberty. It was inspired by the woman’s desire to live a zero waste lifestyle.
That piqued Anja’s curiosity and she subsequently spent nine months on research before eventually producing her own washable sanitary products for the Malaysian market. “It costs me RM500 to get the best cotton fabric from the US. I had the help of an ex-convict who was previously a fashion designer to finally produce my first 37 pieces,” reveals Anja.
Her first batch was tested on her close friends who mostly suffered from allergies using disposable sanitary products. “I gave them three months to review the product,” shares Anja. “But just after one month, everyone wanted to know when I’d be selling them as they wanted to buy more!”
Her business began growing from strength to strength as people became aware of the benefits of washable sanitary products. Her line of products grew from just the regular sanitary pads to include an overnight and heavy flow version, as well as panty liners. Currently, the team also produces baby and adult diapers, nursing pads and adult training pants that are suitable for incontinence or to be worn during light menses days.
All the products are made from super soft and super absorbent quality fabric. “We also use bamboo fabric that’s said to be hypoallergenic and suitable for those with allergies,” shares Anja.
It was in 2012 that Anja learnt about the plight of the girls living in rural Sabah. “A missionary who was working with these families in Sabah told me about their situation. When I went there to interview them, it broke my heart.”
She then donated 100 pieces of sanitary products to 33 girls from the affected areas as a Christmas present. But she felt that there was more that she could do. “I was once a college dropout and I understand how it feels. But at least I managed to finish high school, which gave me the necessary knowledge to be independent and resourceful. They didn’t have that chance,” confides Anja.
Restless, she began exploring ideas on ways to give back. That was when she brought in Hasnur and Fazlina to the team and together they paved the way for empowering impoverished girls in rural areas, particularly Orang Asli girls.
By 2015, they had a solid and concise programme to run in several schools in the outskirts of the city. Their noble work began to garner recognition and in 2016, they were approached by the Ministry of Youth to lead the Sustainable Development Growth Programme.
It was during that period that they worked very closely with Clive Allen, the President of Majlis Belia Orang Asli Malaysia.
“I was never great with children. Never really knew how to talk to them,” admits Anja, adding: “These Orang Asli girls were really shy at first, communicating with them was even harder.” After spending four days with them, the barriers were finally broken. She felt very encouraged by their response.
“The girls were surprisingly responsive, maybe because this was information they never got to learn in schools. It’s also a taboo subject in many families so the girls grow up not knowing how to handle the changes in their body.”
FROM HEALTH TO DREAMS
“These are things that many in the urban cities take for granted. But there are many out there who know nothing about simple menstrual hygiene. And that’s the sad truth,” adds Anja.
Continuing, she recalls: “But the most amazing thing that happened was when they finally went on to share with us the dreams they had for themselves... things they have never told anyone before.”
Taking inspiration from her superhero Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who champions female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Anja and her partners vow to continue their work in ensuring girls are kept in school.
“We’ve reached out to more than 1,200 girls in the past two years but I still don’t think that’s enough. I’m sure there are more out there who need the information,” she exclaims.
A thoughtful silence ensues as we both digest the statement. Taking a final sip of her coffee, Anja concludes: “Empowerment is such a heavy word. We need to walk the talk and be more than that. But I believe if I can get even one girl to stay in school and graduate, it’ll be a huge achievement. After all, education and knowledge are the biggest weapon and empowerment tool anyone can ever have.”
For more details, visit athenaempowers.com