Imagine taking five days off work every month. How would your absence affect your career? Your social life? Your sense of self-worth?
This is the reality for millions of females who are living in economically disadvantaged countries. Without access to adequate sanitary protection, getting their period means they are regularly housebound.
Mandu Reid thinks she might have an answer. A longtime social entrepreneur in London, Reid is the founder of The Cup Effect, a charity that educates women and girls about menstrual cups.
Menstrual cups are bell-shaped silicone receptacles that are inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. “Cups are a fantastic innovation and one of the greatest unsung inventions of the 20th century,” Reid tells MiNDFOOD.
Reid founded The Cup Effect after switching to a cup herself and then discussing her experience with her mother, who had grown up in rural Malawi in south-east Africa.
“It occurred to me that if a cup made a discernible difference to me living a relatively pampered and privileged life, then it could potentially be a game-changer in parts of the world where women and girls (and whole communities) face profound challenges and difficulties,” she explains.
Aside from cost, menstrual cups are much kinder to the environment than other solutions. One cup can serve a woman for 10 years. In contrast, an average western woman will use up to 12,000 pads, tampons or other disposable menstrual products over the course of her life. This is the cost-equivalent of two minibuses per woman.
Because of the plastic content in disposable pads and some applicator tampons, typical menstrual waste can take 500 years to biodegrade. In some places this waste is burnt or ends up polluting oceans, rivers or other water sources.
While sanitary pads and tampons produce colossal landfill waste, cups that can be re-used (after sterilising with boiling water) are much ‘greener’ options.
And for women in poorer countries, cups are much more hygienic than the rags, feathers and newspaper that are often used as substitutes for commercial sanitary protection.
However, while introducing menstrual cups to women in low-income countries may seem like a no-brainer, Reid was told that taboos and cultural beliefs would make her mission difficult. “There are taboos in many cultures about the idea of menstrual products or anything other than a penis being inserted into the vagina,” she explains.
Undeterred, Reid decided to see if education could overcome long-held mores. She felt that by giving women information, they would be empowered to make the decision for themselves.
“Our information sessions typically take around three hours, and for the first hour and a half we don’t really talk about cups at all – we discuss menstruation, women’s reproductive anatomy, and encourage people to share their experiences and ask questions. “Only in the second half do we discuss and explain how cups work, the advantages of using them and how to use them safely and hygienically,” she says.
So far The Cup Effect has had huge success in Kenya and Malawi, and is in the early stages of a pilot in Maharashtra, India.
Reid notes that it will take time to get the message out: “The challenges are very similar to trying to sell cups to the general public in the west. The people who make decisions often have zero knowledge of cups, and even if they do know about them, they have preconceived ideas about why they aren’t suitable in certain places and for certain women.
“The vast majority of people have no idea cups exist, let alone that they are reusable and last for 10 years,” says Reid. “We are determined to do our bit to change this.”