Three years ago today, The Cup Effect became an official charity. But our story starts many years before, with the tale of our Founder Mandu Reid’s mother, Judy, and her upbringing on the shores of Lake Malawi.
Judy grew up in one of the most beautiful areas in the world. As one of ten siblings, it’s safe to say her family was pretty large. Her and her twin sister were the youngest, numbers nine and ten, and life was pretty good. Her family were close knit and forward thinking, and her older sisters always kept a watchful eye out for her.
What Judy didn’t know, however, was that all that was going to change when she hit her teens and started her period.
“I made a big fuss! I had to go!”
School was tough. Judy’s family hadn’t spoken much English at home, one of her first experiences in the classroom was being punished for speaking in her mother tongue.
“I remember being called out to the front of the class to spell t-h-a-t after I’d had some time off sick. Of course I didn’t know and came home with a huge red mark across my face.”
Judy still found it fun walking to school each morning and the journey soon became a regular part of her and her friends’ daily life. The hot Malawian weather and their lack of shoes meant that they would dance along the route from one patch of grass to another, anything to keep their feet from burning.
A Big Change
A few years later Judy’s dad was given a job in a big industrial city named Blantyre. This was a huge change for the whole family and a total contrast to everything that they knew as home.
It was here that, aged fifteen, Judy had her first period.
And she didn’t know what to do.
Nobody had ever told her about periods before. She found herself in total shock.
Other than the usual playground rumours, she’d never heard anyone even mention periods before, let alone explain to her what she should do. All she knew was that whatever was happening to her was considered taboo.
And so, thinking she’d done something wrong, she tried to hide it. Anything to keep her classmates from finding out what had happened to her.
A Message from the Elders
Eventually, Judy found the courage to tell the male housekeeper who then told her older sisters. She was terrified! What was going to happen to her now? Judy was amazed to see her sisters were so happy. She had entered womanhood!
But she still didn’t know that much about what was happening to her body or what she should do. That was until a friend came up to her after school with a message; “they are waiting for you now”.
Next door she found a room full of local elderly women waiting for her. Judy sat down and bowed her head as the elders told her that she was grown-up now and couldn’t play with boys anymore.
“What did they mean no more games? I had fears of all my playground adventures vanishing!”
She was given a piece of cloth with two pieces of string around it and told that this was what she should wear when on her period. She was to wash it after each period but mustn’t hang it outside to dry, lest somebody see. Instead, Judy was told to keep it hidden under her bed mat.
The cloth didn’t absorb blood so well and Judy still found herself fearing leaks each month when her period arrived. The more she used the cloth the stiffer it got and the smell from the lack of proper drying really started to take over.
Some months Judy would try using newspaper, toilet roll, cotton wool or anything else instead but nothing worked. Her period soon become the worst time of her month. Her monthly dread soon turned into outright feer.
There was one particular moment that still sits vividly in Judy’s memory. She was sat in class, on her period, and knew that she had leaked through her dress. It was at that moment that the teacher called her to the blackboard to solve a maths puzzle. She was rooted in her seat. Frozen. How could she go up now? Would everyone see?
Eventually she was made to stand up and come forward. She can still remember the sound of the boys laughing at her. Everybody was pointing until one kind girl rushed to her aid with a cardigan to tie around her waist, but the damage was done. She felt humiliated.
After that it became a regular occurrence for the boys to tease her in the playground for this ‘strange thing’ happening to her body. Soon she saw all her female classmates going through the same experience – leaks, shame, humiliation, teasing. It became par for the course.
Discovering Menstrual Products
On particularly heavy days Judy didn’t go to school, it was too embarrassing.
For Judy and her friends, periods were a time to be ashamed. She felt dirty and strange as she was told that she was smelly and unclean. She’d miss out on class and each month became depressed as the date of her period loomed ever closer.
Judy was seventeen years old when she tried her first pad, a gift from an older sister now earning a salary in the working world. The ease of using these over the traditional piece of cloth was unbelievable.
But it still wasn’t a proper solution. Judy’s family couldn’t afford to buy pads every month and so they would often have to re-use the same pad for a whole cycle or use the cloth again.
After school Judy headed off to Secretarial College where she was given a government allowance to support her studies. Much of this went towards buying grooming and menstrual products and it was here that she started to use tampons.
The other girls at college were shocked that she was using such a thing, it seemed so alien to them! Soon enough though, Judy had convinced most of her cohort to give them a try. And soon enough they all loved them too.
Many of Judy’s friends in both school and college would sleep with men in exchange for pocket money to buy menstrual products and other necessities. In fact, when they found out that Judy’s boyfriend wasn’t giving her any money her friends were shocked. This concept was so normal and accepted that Judy became the anomaly.
The Cup Effect
Many girls weren’t as lucky to have a family like Judy’s. They would miss out on education and be shamed on a daily basis as the taboo continues right up to this day. Judy’s story is from many years ago but it could just as easily be told by another Judy still living in Malawi today.
If Judy had grown up with a cup, her life would have been dramatically different. She wouldn’t have needed to find somewhere to dispose her pads, a serious challenge in a country still filled with period taboos. She wouldn’t have needed to worry about having proper underwear, which of course a pad assumes that you have. She wouldn’t have needed to worry about leaks or never having enough pads for one period.
It was this story of Judy’s that inspired her daughter, Mandu, to take action and find a sustainable solution for the countless woman and girls battling through shame and humiliation with their periods every day. Girls in low income countries will miss 20% of their schooling due to their period, leaving them vulnerable later in life. A menstrual cup has the power to change that.
Each menstrual cup lasts for up to 10 years and can be reused each and every month. It creates no waste, requires no additional resources and acts as an affordable and sustainable solution for women and girls around the world.
Cups are still relatively unknown in Malawi and much of Africa but The Cup Effect is working to change that through our buy one give two policy. For every cup you buy from us, two are given to women and girls facing period poverty at home and overseas. Each menstrual cup brings the potential to transform a woman’s life, helping lift her out of period poverty.
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Pip Christie is a Freelance Digital Marketer who heads up marketing and communications at The Cup Effect as a volunteer. She has over four years experience working across the charity and start-up sectors following her Masters degree in Human Rights. She now works with charities and small business clients as a freelancer. You can follow her across social media @PipUnedited or visit her website at pipchristie.com