Menstruation Matters: understanding the solutions with social enterprise Sanitree

Photo: Bharat Singh and Martha Reilly, co-directors of Sanitree

This May we are celebrating Menstruation Matters and focussing on how we can make women and girls feel confident about menstruation. Sanitree, a social enterprise founded and run by a team of nine students of Edinburgh University, is an organization already doing incredible work with these aims in mind. Sanitree produce sustainable, reusable sanitary products for women living in India. This year, The Music Circle is planning to support Irise International, a similar project in Uganda, as well as donate sanitary products to foodbanks in the UK and raise awareness about Menstruation Matters. I caught up with Bharat Singh and Martha Reilly, the co-directors of Sanitree, to discuss the role that projects such as these play in the wider issue of period poverty and our attitudes towards our bodies.

A social enterprise is a business model that reinvests its profit margin back into the project and directly benefits local communities. Sanitree, a project that is working under the umbrella of Enactus, is still in its nascent stages as it was established in September of last year but already provides employment for twenty-seven women in the Bhind district of Madhya Pradesh, India. Shocked by the stigma surrounding menstruation in his home town Bhind, Bharat spoke about some of the devastating effects of period poverty in this community. He claims that “young girls in India can miss out on as much as 25% of their education, or even drop out” as a result of the difficulties association with menstruation. The pair tell me that affordability is a key factor in this. Some women simply cannot afford sanitary products and use unclean and unsafe substitutes such as sawdust. Furthermore, even with a conventional plastic sanitary pad, women face difficulties in disposing of them as they are not allowed in the household waste.

“Sanitree’s conception is just as much about challenging the stigma as finding a solution”

The Sanitree team, upon visiting Bhind, found that there was a wider cultural issue of a lack of awareness and encountered popular beliefs such as the myth that if you are to touch a boy whilst you are on your period that this can result in pregnancy. However, this stigma isn’t just the case in India. In the UK, there is also a huge stigma surrounding menstruation that can be difficult for young women. This stigma, I would argue, contributes towards the exclusion and dismissal of menstruation related issues in politics. Period poverty is a huge issue in the UK. It is estimated that the average woman spends £18,000 throughout her lifetime simply on having a period and in Scotland 1 in 5 women admit that they struggle to buy sanitary products —statistics that are woefully underrepresented in the media. The ongoing campaign to end the “Tampon Tax” and the classification of sanitary products as luxury items is indicative of the dismissal and lack of understanding shown by political bodies of the economic challenges currently posed by menstruation. In both India and UK there is a lack of knowledge about the issue and projects such as both Sanitree and Irise raise awareness simply by existing. Both Bharat and Martha are resolute on the fact that Sanitree’s conception is just as much about challenging the stigma as it is finding a solution.

An ecofeminist organization

In addition to the tangible benefits in terms of cost, the reusable sanitary pads do not incur the same environmental issues of similar plastic products. Bharat tells me that one sanitary pad can have the same amount of plastic as up to three plastic bags. As environmental sustainability is at the heart of Sanitree’s philosophy, the project considers itself an ecofeminist organization. The term ecofeminism originated in the 1970s and is grounded in the contention that the connection between the oppression of women and the rest of nature must be recognized to understand adequately both oppressions. Sanitree defines itself as ecofeminist as its aims are rooted in the shared concepts of environmentalism and feminism.

Both Bharat and Martha talk about the sense of agency that derives from taking control of your plastic consumption, likening it to “remembering your bag for life” and even quoting Simone De Beauvoir and her theory of transcendence versus immanence. Transcendence being the act of making decisions outside your personal sphere and immanence, traditionally associated with the feminine, as not engaging with projects outside of that sphere. Sanitree identify the decision to cut down one’s use of plastic as a transcendent act and, in what has been coined the “Blue Planet Effect”, argue that there has been a significant shift in our cultural consciousness regarding plastic and that this developing environmental consciousness can be viewed from a feminist perspective as a reclaiming of agency.

It is this sense of agency that I feel lies at the heart of why initiatives such as Sanitree and Irise are so powerful. Not only does Sanitree provide employment opportunities for women within their own community and have the end goal for the business to be completely taken over by these women, but they also engage people of all backgrounds and builds a community in speaking up against period stigma. The experience of menstruation is a transnational one and cannot be solved if there is no discussion surrounding it. Both Martha and Bharat wanted to establish from the start that not all women have periods and not all people who have periods are women and so Sanitree, and the ongoing debate surrounding menstruation, is a step towards coming to terms with our bodies in a way that is positive without being gendered.

One of The Circle’s key drives is “Women Empowering Women” and in the case of Sanitree it is clear that a sense of solidarity is becoming more and more visible as campaigns such as this grow. Both Martha and Bharat express the immense amount of support they have had from both the community in Bhind to the Scottish government’s commitment to this issue. They both believe that Scotland is a leader on progressive legislation and with the help of a number of MSPs, the group are campaigning for the provision of free sanitary products for those children who are offered free school meals, in addition to running pad making workshops and campaigning in the streets of Edinburgh.

The conversation surrounding menstrual wellbeing needs to be more open and frank to empower women and girls everywhere. Get a bloody education and find out more about The Circle’s Menstruation Matters Campaign and donate to our project with Irise International.

 

 

 

 

Written by @AnnaRenfrew. Anna is a student at The University of Edinburgh and a volunteer at The Circle.


“Education is about more than just textbook learning. It gives me the freedom of choice”

Project: Educate Girls

Suhani* is 11 years old and lives in rural Rajasthan. A few years ago, Suhani was struggling to learn how to read and write. Her parents decided that she was not gaining much from going to school and she dropped out. Suhani was then confined to cooking, cleaning, fetching water and taking care of her younger siblings.

When the Eduate Girls’ community volunteers and staff first talked to her parents, they said that they didn’t think that Suhani would benefit much from going to school and that excelling at household chores would be far more useful. Other parents who took part in the community meetings shared the same view.

“When Narayan [the Field Coordinator] spoke to my parents, it had been three years since I dropped out of school”, Suhani says. “I did not know the importance of or feel the need for education. Most of the girls in my village were working at home, like I was, or were already married. I didn’t know there was something else I should or could be doing… Domestic work was my responsibility. I was preparing for my future.”

Educate Girls staff and volunteers organised community meetings and told parents about a nearby state school for girls with all-female staff. The school also offers extracurricular tuition after school. Suhani’s mother went to visit the school and meet the teachers and staff.

Her parents agreed to send her to school, so Suhani took a bridge course to catch up with her level and is now studying with other girls her age.

When Educate Girls staff travelled from Mumbai to Suhani’s village, she told them that “education is about more than just textbook learning. It gives me the freedom of choice. I’m not sure yet what I aspire to be, but one thing’s clear –I want to study for as long as I can!”

About Educate Girls

Educate Girls is a Mumbai-based NGO that has been working to increase girls’ enrollment and retention rates and improve the quality of education in the government-run schools of rural India since 2007.

Their Creative Learning and Teaching curriculum is designed for children studying in grades 3, 4 and 5. The learning curriculum is activity-based, child friendly and caters to the need of the most marginalized children in rural India.

With a donation from The Circle, Educate Girls has supplied 47 schools in Rajasthan with CLT kits, improving the education of 1,410 children.

*Name has been changed to protect the minor’s identity.


The Asian Circle Summer Party, 2017

 

The Asian Circle Summer Party, 2017 — press release

The Asian Circle Summer Party is beginning to become a bit of a tradition. The annual bonanza was hosted once again at the fantastic Bangalore Express restaurant near Bank Station, in central London. A prime location for an evening of inspirational, thought-provoking speeches and laughter.

The evening started with guests arriving and mingling, with complementary drinks and light snacks. Designers Natasha Khushi of Opuline and Geeta Handa of C-Atomic showcased their collections to guests, with items available for purchase on the night.

This year, The Asian Circle was delighted to welcome guest speaker Caroline Sweetman from Oxfam and a very special guest headliner, the award winning comedian and columnist Shazia Mirza. As Shazia arrived, the photo opportunities and fanfare flowed. Half an hour after her arrival, the speeches began. Opening was by Santosh Bhanot, founder of The Asian Circle, who ended her speech with a video showing the importance of the work The Asian Circle is doing supporting the impoverished Adivasi communities in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, in India.

Caroline followed with some inspiring words on why over twenty years after she took up her role, fighting against the injustices that women face across the world remains such an important part of her work.

Finally, it was time for headliner Shazia, who brought the house down with laughter during her half-hour set.

The Asian Circle’s project

Of course, this event, like all of The Asian Circle’s, was held to raise awareness and much needed funds for the our current project in the Chhattisgarh region of east India.

The Asian Circle’s main objective is to tackle the issue of violence against women, which is the most common form of human rights violation in India. It is such a deeply-ingrained, socially-accepted ‘right’ for men to physically, sexually or mentally abuse their wives in the country, that women are trapped in a life of violence, shame and stigma. They suffer from lack of support from the police and the legal system. This lack of support prevents many women from reporting domestic violence and seeking help. The Asian Circle is working with Oxfam in the tribal Adivasi communities in India to challenge the social acceptance of sexual and domestic violence against women.

Progress so Far

In Chhattisgarh, there has been a state-level consultation on the State Gender Equality Policy, a policy that had not been revisited in more than a decade. Women from across the state took part, reflecting their concerns and issues with the policy gaps.

Notably, our partners that are working on the ground have received an award for the positive outcomes of their work and for helping to forge happier communities.

In Odisha, Gender Times sessions were organised at colleges, which increased engagement of adolescents and youth groups with gender issues.

This fantastic evening was held to generate much needed donations. Here is a breakdown of how funds can help with different aspects of the existing project:

  • £100 could provide vital legal aid to five women.
  • £300 would cover monthly counselling sessions for twenty women facing violence.
  • £500 would cover setting up a support network for survivors.
  • £1,000 would cover awareness-raising sessions for 100 men, to educate them on violence against women and challenge entrenched attitudes and beliefs about women.

To find out more about the project and donate, please visit our Brave New World project page.


Karigari London — an exhibition of artisanal Indian fashion and decor

 

Karigari London, 2017 — press release. 

The Asian Circle was delighted to be the charity partner at this year’s Karigari London exhibition. The event took place at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan centre, in West Kensington, London, between 22 and 25 June 2017.

The term ‘karigari’ in Hindi means a craftsman who specialises in traditional arts. Six like-minded women entrepreneurs have come together, creating the first UK-based collective to celebrate and showcase the rich craftsmanship of Indian artisans. The collective is based on their love for preserving traditional heritage and slow sustainable fashion.

Curations included handwoven fabrics, embroideries, artworks, silver and gemstone jewellery, traditional clothes, rugs and other homewares from India and South Asia.

The three-day event kickstarted with a launch reception on the Thursday evening. Speakers included The Asian Circle founder Santosh Bhanot, who talked about the importance of the work that The Asian Circle is doing alongside Oxfam in South Asia. Santosh said that ‘The Asian Circle’s ethos of “women empowering women” is very much at the forefront in this partnership. Much of the art comes from the talent in small villages where traditional arts skills are practised to form beautiful creations with fine sensibilities’.

Complimentary drinks and snacks flowed as the evening went on before the first day of the exhibition came to a close.

The next day, visitors started arriving from 11 am to see some of the best Karigari work on show in London. Guests were so impressed with the work on show that competition was rife for who would end up taking home some of the clothing on display!

The Asian Circle had a constant presence at the event to raise awareness about violence against women and funds for their project in central and east India. The Asian Circle sold handmade chokers designed by C-atomic, and raffle tickets to win a beautiful Gond tribal bronze statue, handcrafted by the leader of one of the women support groups that The Asian Circle has helped set up in India.

A massive thank you has to go to the designers for inviting The Asian Circle, as well as pledging a very generous donation to the project. We look forward to next year’s Karigari!

The Asian Circle’s work in India

The Asian Circle and Oxfam are supporting survivors of gender-based violence in rural areas of Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Oxfam and The Asian Circle are setting up support groups and shelters for survivors and organising debate groups to challenge the social acceptance of violence against women.

To find out more about the project and donate, please visit our Brave New World project page.


The Asian Circle Hosts Summer Party Fundraiser

The Asian Circle hosted its first Summer Networking Party on 22 July 2016 at the luxurious restaurant Bangalore Express in the City of London. The event was an opportunity to bring The Asian Circle members together to enjoy the evening and fundraise for a good cause.

It was a wonderful evening with networking over the finest Indian cuisine in the City, henna artists, live DJs, guest speakers and raffle prizes. All profits from the evening went towards supporting The Asian Circle’s project in partnership with Oxfam India. The project is working to raise awareness about violence against women in rural communities in eastern India and is building a support centre for survivors in the region of Chhattisgarh.

Asian Circle Summer Party 1

Guests included Judge Sujata Sharma, a firm supporter of women’s rights and winner of the Outstanding Women in Construction Law award (WICE Awards, 2016) and the Commercial/Civil Lawyer of the Year award (the Society of Asian Lawyers,2015); Dr Pushpinder Chowdhry, founder and Director of the London Asian Film Festival; Taryn Khanam, founder of BritBangla; Sadhia Hussain BEM, an activist for Bengali women’s rights, and many more high-profile professionals.

Guest speakers included Oxfam’s Sarah Ireland, who shared her views about gender equality and what is left to do to achieve it. Henna Rai, a social activist, inspired everyone with her words: ‘As I passionately campaign on women’s issues, I’m extremely pleased to be supporting The Asian Circle. Gender inequality is close to my heart; by sharing my experiences I strive to attain greater empowerment for women.’

The Asian Circle is part of the The Circle, a charity founded by Annie Lennox. The aim of The Asian Circle is to end violence against women and raise awareness about gender inequality and how it impacts women in South Asia. The Asian Circle is currently working in the tribal Adivasi communities in east India to challenge the social acceptance of sexual and domestic violence against women, set up support centres for survivors in police stations and provide counselling and legal advice.

Dr Santosh Bhanot, founder and chair of The Asian Circle and Asian Women of Achievement nominee, opened the event by updating everyone on the project. ‘Since its launch, The Asian Circle has striven to support ground-breaking work with Oxfam to transform the lives of women and communities in South Asia,’ Dr Bhanot said on the night. ‘We are delighted to see the positive impact the programme is having with the Adivasi women in India and hope to replicate this project [in] other South Asian countries. It is vital that we tackle violence against women and girls by engaging support with the communities, police and judiciary, who in this instance are all playing an active role. It is with huge recognition that the Ending Violence against Women project in Chhattisgarh has received the State-level honour Nari Shakti Samman for the initiative.

About The Asian Circle

The Asian Circle is a sub-branch of The Circle formed by British Asian women from diverse backgrounds. Its goal is to support vulnerable women in South Asia by raising awareness about their plight and raising vital funds to set up support centres for survivors.

The Asian Circle connects passionate women in the UK that volunteer their time, skills and resources to support Oxfam projects.

The Asian Circle believes that, given the rights resources, women hold the key to overcome poverty and create lasting change for themselves and their communities.