A Manifesto for Menstrual Cups in the Fight Against Period Poverty

The best inventions can change society. Examples that spring to mind over my adult years range from Google Maps (no more arguments in the car on holiday!) to dating apps. With the right public health investment, the small and simple menstrual cup could be one of these.

Education empowers. And in particular, across the world, education for women changes lives and communities.But, although society champions the importance of educating women and girls, we also need to work on the practicalities.

Providing access to education isn’t enough on its own. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say – access isn’t just about physical access to a school, or books and educators.

The question we must ask is, are girls able to make the most of the resources and opportunities available to them? Once a month – that answer is all too often no.

A Manifesto for Menstrual Cups in the Fight Against Period Poverty

The reality of being a girl is that once a month, sometimes from as young as age nine or ten, your period will start – and will last an average of five to six days. And to be able to participate in education fully – your period needs to not get in the way.

But what do you do if you can’t afford menstrual products, and you have no way to manage your period?

This has come to be known as period poverty – and as many people will be acutely aware – this isn’t just a problem facing girls and young women abroad, far away elsewhere – but a very real issue facing us here across the U.K.

A Manifesto for Menstrual Cups in the Fight Against Period Poverty

A recent 2017 survey by Plan international U.K. found that one in seven girls in the U.K. has struggled to afford menstrual care – with 40% of girls saying that they have used toilet roll as a replacement for menstrual products because of the cost involved. We often meet women and girls through our own work in East Africa who are having to use an old piece of cloth in lieu of menstrual products, and we all know that this is neither a hygienic nor empowering option.

On top of the cost factor, there is the embarrassment that talking about menstruation still causes – even within families. The same survey found that of the 1,000 girls surveyed, over half said they were embarrassed to discuss their periods or to ask for help when needed. And one in ten had been asked not to talk about their periods in front of their mother or father. With that, a clearer picture of the scale of the difficulty often facing young girls and women emerges.

Knowing that schoolgirls are missing out on their basic right to education as a result of having their period is both shocking and upsetting. Thankfully, the topic of period poverty is getting increasingly talked about and taken more seriously – and thanks to the hard work of charities and campaigners, has gained enough momentum that policy makers and many of us as individuals are taking notice and looking for ways to help address the issue.

In Scotland, the government has committed to making menstrual products free for all schools, colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the Welsh government committed £1m last year to address period poverty in communities and improve facilities for menstrual health across schools. In England, £1.5m was pledged from the ‘tampon tax fund’ to the Brook Project to help address period poverty – with a pledge to remove the tampon tax entirely once the UK leaves the European Union….

Corporations are doing their bit too – with Tesco covering the 5% VAT themselves and other supermarkets also finding ways to offset the infamous tampon tax.

And there are many organisations and campaigners doing great work out there too – from the Red Box project – which collects donations of menstrual products and distributes them to schools, to Bloody Good Period, who donate menstrual supplies to asylum centres across London and Leeds to help vulnerable women. The British Medical Association used its influence to call for the provision of free menstrual products by the state in June 2018. And at the recent royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Markle included on the list of charities the couple asked people to support in lieu of gifts a charity in India, working to address period poverty – further raising the profile of the issue.

But as we circle back to the starting point of this article – my question to those who wish to help address the issue and in particular policy makers is, are we approaching period poverty in the right way?

The cost of giving each girl in the U.K. access to menstrual products has been estimated at £4.78m per year – based on the assumption that each girl or woman uses around four to five menstrual products per day that they are menstruating, and that a girl or woman will menstruate approximately 68 days each year (roughly £500 per individual per year).

The logistics of ensuring enough supplies and access to menstrual products is no small challenge in itself – and I’m not sure I would have liked to rely on school supplies each month without it feeling like a handout – however well intentioned.

But the menstrual cup gives us a way around all of that.

A menstrual cup is made from soft medical-grade silicone – and crucially can be cleaned and reused for up to ten years. This means each owner of a menstrual cup is set up with the resources and independence to maintain her period safely, confidently and with dignity for the next ten years.

At £20 a pop, it’s a no-brainer as a cost-effective investment which comes with a myriad of additional benefits for the individual (such as less impact on the body – the menstrual cup collects rather than absorbs menstrual and vaginal fluid so reduces dryness and discomfort) and for the planet (a huge reduction to our contribution to landfill and environmental impact).

For policy makers interested in empowering young women, equalising access to education, and reducing our impact on our environment – and in a cost effective way as services are increasingly stretched – the menstrual cup is small, simple but potentially game-changing.

Sex education in schools is a great place to start the conversation and help normalise periods – and if girls were to be given a menstrual cup as a choice for an alternative form of menstrual product to try, we’ll have helped to set these girls and young women up for their teenage years and into early adulthood – hugely empowering.

Similarly, providing menstrual cups in hostels, shelters and asylums could go some small way to help reduce the stress burden for thousands of women, and provide an element of independence and relief.

Here at The Cup Effect, we are taking these conversations to policy makers, and education and health providers. And you can help too! For each cup purchased through The Cup Effect, two are donated to women and girls facing period poverty either in East Africa or the UK.  

Menstrual cups are a no brainer. Let’s make this happen.

Rose Wu is the Internal Communications Manager at The Institute for Cancer Research, London, and a volunteer for The Cup Effect – writing here in a personal capacity. She was gifted her first menstrual cup by a housemate, and told to buy one in turn for a friend and pass the love on. She is now passing this great life mantra on!

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