From November 13 to November 16, Blossom collaborated with Freedom Cups to provide women in rural India with a menstruation cups. Over the course of 4 days, we went into 8 different villages and to 1 school, providing 300 women with a menstruation cup.
The monthly struggle
Menstruation, even in the “developed world” is a topic that is not on the top of the conversation list. Menstrual period comes once a month, women buy tampons and pads, use them for a couple of days until the period is over and peace of mind is once again restored for another month. However, what is considered only a slight inconvenience in this scenario, looks very different in India. Approximately 30-40% of women in rural areas in South India use products that are not specifically designed for menstruation such as cloths. Sanitary pads are often too expensive, hard to get and not customized to women's needs in specific context.
Moreover, women struggle with the disposal of these products, especially when they are outside of the house, where facilities are not made for the convenience of periods resulting in the majority of these products being buried or burned. And while sanitary pads can be found and bought in supermarkets and local stores in villages and cities, their price creates a substantial cost for the households restricting their daily living expenses.
Not only the products used for menstruation, but being able to manage menstruation itself is an issue for women in South India. When experiencing a heavy flow or unexpected bleeding, there is a lack of possibilities to change or to dispose sanitary products due to a lack of public toilets women can use. Not being able to change period products regularly can be unhygienic and the cause of infection and various health issues. School girls are often forced to skip a whole day of education and stay home, if they are not able to access toilets and clean water to change their pads. This hinders school participation to the extent that more than 20% of all girls reaching puberty in India permanently drop out due to menstruation.
On top of personal difficulties, menstruation remains a social taboo. In Hindu religion, which constitutes 93.84% of the Virudhunagar district population, it is strictly prohibited to enter temples or to attend religious festivals when you are on your period, limiting women’s freedom of daily practices. Furthermore, when talking about menstruation, women use the word “whisper” a popular brand name for sanitary pads frequently used in (south) India. The brand name itself shows how difficult it is to bring up and talk about menstruation in public, as it should be “whispered”. Women and girls are made to feel shamed, silenced and discouraged of being outside the house when on their period. This results in self stigmatization, which limits their freedom even more.
Not being able to take ownership of their periods and bodies as something powerful and strong, we recognize that menstruation is still one of the resonating issues which prevents women and girls from taking steps forward in their life. Within Blossom Trust, our overall goal is to increase gender equality and women’s empowerment. Herein we saw the need to address menstruation obstacles and mentality, and we see it as our responsibility as a women-led organisation to lead this effort in our community.
Why Freedom Cups?
Freedom Cups is an organization that manufactures menstruation cups. A cup usually costs $30, but for every cup they sell they provide a cup to a woman who can’t afford it. By using a menstrual cup, women will not have to depend on buying disposable sanitary pads, or to use thick batches of cloth when menstruating. Managing their menstruation therefore becomes more safe, affordable and less worrisome. As a Freedom Cup can be inserted for up to 10 hours, especially school girls will have more freedom by not having to worry about leakage, which makes their menstruation easier to manage even when there are insufficient school toilets to change. As the cup can last for 10 years, it is a great substitute for women in rural areas, who often can’t afford to buy sanitation pads every month.
13-16th of November: taking the theory to a test!
That there are several benefits to the use of a menstrual cup, is one thing. But how was the community going to react? As tampons are rarely used here, we were hesitant at first about the idea to provide women with a menstrual cup. Would they be interested in using it? Vanessa Paranjothy, the Co-founder of Freedom Cups, flew in with 300 Freedom Cups which we were going to distribute over the next few days. 2-3 meetings were set up each day, each attending about 30-40 women, in the nearby villages surrounding Virudhunagar. To test the acceptability of menstrual cups in this region, the amount of distributed cups was deliberately kept low.
The first meeting was held in Chitumuundraipu, the home village of one of the women self-help group leaders of Blossom Trust. As we set up the venue, women one by one started coming in, curious of what the meeting was going to be about. Mercy Annapoorani, our Executive Director of Blossom Trust, took the lead of the meeting in Tamil. Before mentioning the menstrual cups, she spoke about the costs, the hassle of using cloth, and the difficulties women faced, all very relatable topics to women’s everyday life. But what if you could use one and the same product for 10 years? For many it was hard to believe there is a single material which can be used, which will set you free of cloth and sanitary pads. “It must be a joke!” some even said. And that’s where the menstrual cup came in. Hidden in the closed palm of her hand, Mercy raised her closed fist. “Something as discreet and small you can’t even see it’s in my hand'', she said. And by opening it, the menstrual cup appeared.
After the information and education on how to use the cup, women were able to ask questions. Is it able to get stuck? Or can it accidentally come out during the day? Can I still pee? And what about allergies? All questions were dealt with respect and integrity. Afterwards, women who wanted to have a cup, where asked to come forward and were shown how to properly fold it for insertion, and were given a package with a menstrual cup, a discreet cotton bag, and a piece of soap to use the cup hygienically.
The first meeting was a success!! Eagerly we continued, altogether reaching 8 villages and 1 school. Overall, the response at the meetings was exceeding our expectations tremendously. Every meeting we held, women and girls attended, listened and were interested in our cups. Women who did not want to receive a cup, were given only a soap bar to thank them for their attendance.
We are proud of the results we have achieved, but the big test will only come after a couple of months. After an evaluation, we will be able to see how big the response of women actually using the cups is. We hope that some women, it can only be a few, will dare to try and use it, after which they will tell others about their experiences.
After our initial evaluation phase, which will take place 3 months from now, we aim to have more distributions in the surrounding villages, working together with our women self-help groups and collaborating with nearby schools.
Project duration: 2019