An interview with Sanitree’s co-founder, Martha Aroha
Writing: Rachel Flynn
Illustration: Isi Williams
After getting involved in Sanitree’s odd-pad making workshop and attending a few of their brilliantly named events (‘Bloody Good Ceilidh’ being my personal favourite), I wanted to know more about the India-based social enterprise aiming to tackle period poverty and the stigma surrounding menstruation. Scotland and India are two countries with seemingly little in common, and yet, Martha Aroha, Sanitree’s co-founder, diligently explains on a rainy Tuesday morning in Soderberg Cafe how Sanitree has had an impact on both locations and their communities.
Martha’s involvement with Sanitree began when she met with its founder, Bharat, through Enactus, a student-led project at Edinburgh which helps launch social enterprises around the world. Bharat, a fourth-year originally from Bhind, India, had witnessed first-hand the struggle his mother and sisters faced to access basic sanitary products, as well as the general cultural sentiment around menstruation as something far too ‘dirty’ to discuss. In response, he had the idea of starting a cooperative in his hometown. Whilst for some, the word ‘cooperative’ is associated with a mediocre meal deal performance, there is a much greater meaning behind the word. Defined as an ‘organisation involving mutual assistance in working towards a common goal,’ a cooperative like Sanitree with a goal to reduce period poverty and period stigma in locations 4000 miles apart could not be a better cause to support.
And how might these wonderfully ambitious goals be achieved? Sanitree has worked hard to find the answers - a common pattern throughout my chat with Martha. She explains that the core of this social enterprise is the making and selling of re-usable sanitary towels by female beneficiaries identified as in-need by local authorities within the community. To decrease period poverty, Sanitree is working to reduce the unit cost of each reusable pad as much as they possibly can. This is done by the development of a premium product, made from organic cotton and targeted at a higher income-market within India. From these sales, Sanitree will be able to subsidise the cost of the standard reusable pad, thus allowing them to reach low-income women with the least access to sanitary products. Importantly, Martha illustrated how the nature of Sanitree’s reusable pads is not just beneficial to the environment but economically and socially too. While the Indian Government is currently working on increasing access to disposable pads (albeit a positive move), Sanitree stresses how they have been collaborating to find other, more sustainable, solutions alongside this. ‘Accessibility is about more than the ability to get to an access point every month to receive a pad’, Martha explains. With a reusable pad, women can make a single purchase which lasts for up for two years. Consequently, the initial economic and social barriers facing the communities that inspired the creation of Sanitree are diminished.
Throughout our chat, it became clear that in order to make substantial change, one does indeed have to be slightly business savvy. ‘Do you see it as a business?’, I ask. ‘It is a business,’ Martha replied, ‘just with social impact integrated into it.’ She explained how none of the UK team receive a salary, and that all profits are reinvested into the beneficiaries and the Her Shakti centre – the community centre which translates to ‘Her Power,’ set up by Sanitree and the Jeevan Arth foundation in Jaipur. The centre, it seems, is far from a clinical working environment. After reviewing needs assessments with the beneficiaries, Sanitree decided to innovate their model ‘more in terms of [their] social impact.’ Martha illustrated that while their first project in Bhind was working well, the idea of having self-defence and yoga classes, unrelated to the project of reducing poverty, meant that the Her Shakti centre was not a clinical workshop environment, but a centre that the women could have a personal relationship with. And thus, while Sanitree is first and foremost about reducing period poverty and stigma, it is too a project of empowerment within the community, led by and for local women.
The project first set up in Bhind, which runs regular pad-making workshops and free education on menstrual health, is now entirely self-sufficient - an important part in understanding Sanitree’s role in the Indian community. Sanitree are principally the facilitators of this positive change, given their privileged position in the UK where funding, time, and intellectual resources are more accessible. Martha is extremely aware of issues regarding the ‘white saviour’ and assures me that is something they are ‘always thinking about.’ She explains to me how all of the work on the ground is led by the Jeevan Arth Foundation, the Indian NGO who work very personally with the beneficiaries in a ‘very organic way.’ To describe their somewhat long-distance relationship, Martha puts it clearly: ‘we’re empowering the beneficiaries to empower others with the resources we are able to give to them.’ While the work Sanitree does is undoubtedly beneficial to the Indian communities they work in, Martha clearly recognises the responsibility to accurately portray their role and representation in an Indian-led project.
I ask whether Martha has been able to witness a decreasing stigma with regards to menstruation, to which she replies, ‘in Scotland, yes. In India, it’s difficult for me to say.’ The Sanitary Products Bill introduced by MSP Monica Lennon, affirming the free provision of sanitary products in Scotland, has completely catapulted discussion to the extent that ‘period poverty has almost become a hot topic.’ We talk about Sanitree’s role in building on the momentum of this period poverty awareness; by having fundraisers with names like ‘Heavy Flow’ and ‘Bloody Good Ceilidh,’ it is clear that there is no desire to be subtle. And why should there be?
As Sanitree seems to be having more and more impact on both Scottish and Indian communities, I wonder, ‘Is there an end to your goals?’ To which, Martha exclaims, ‘The end to period poverty of course!’ Perhaps a little ambitious, but Sanitree is certainly a start. Their current long-term aim is to make Sanitree a franchise model, taking the same structure in terms of setting up a cooperative in conjunction with NGOs on the ground and doing the same in other communities. ‘That’s a lot easier said than done’, Martha affirms, ‘as obviously the needs of each individual community will be entirely distinct, so the model will always need to be adjusted to align with these.’ Considering the incredible work done already in Bhind, Jaipur, and Scotland as a whole, it is clear there is much more to come from Sanitree. Just days after my interview with Martha, Sanitree became finalists in HSBC’s ‘Grow Your Community’ competition, counting themselves ‘very lucky to have access to spaces like this.’ With such a headstrong project leader amongst a team of talent in both India and the UK, I left the café positive about the future, or lack thereof, of period poverty and stigma.