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Cups have been used all over Europe, USA, and Australia for two decades, especially by young women concerned about the environmental impact and cost of single-use pads and tampons.
In 2020, the UK Department for Education committed to providing free menstrual products, including menstrual cups, to all state schools in England. Shops such as Walmart in the US and Boots and Sainsbury’s in the UK now stock them. Members of the Menstrual Cup Coalition have successfully distributed cups in 28 countries in the Global South, but they are not yet widely available.
Successful uptake requires understanding, appropriate education, and follow-up advice. A major barrier to the introduction of cups is a lack of knowledge among women, governments, and donors. Contrary to expectation, religion has not been a barrier to acceptance: cups are used by Muslims in Kenya & Malawi, Hindus in Nepal and India.
Period pollution is a global issue at the intersection of gender and environmental justice.
Single-use ‘disposable’ period products and their wrapping use cotton, paper, wood pulp, and plastics, plus water and fuel to make. When disposed of, they are the fifth-biggest source of plastic on beaches. They block sewers, take over 500 years to decompose in land-fill, or create air pollution if burned. In her lifetime, each woman using pads and tampons fills the equivalent of two minibuses with waste. In comparison, one menstrual cup requires only 15 grams of silicone to make and uses half a cup of water to wash each month. Washable pads or clothes require 14 liters of water each month to wash. The environmental impact of a menstrual cup is less than 1.5% of the impact of tampons or pads. Using menstrual cups consumes 16 times less carbon, saving 7 kg CO2e over a year. If just 10% of the 60 million women in the USA who menstruate use menstrual cups, the annual carbon saving would be the equivalent of 42,000 metric tons CO2- the same as 6,000 petrol cars driving 10,000 miles a year).
In 2019 The Lancet medical journal affirmed the safety of menstrual cups and the British National Health Service stated that cups are a “safe and effective alternative to pads and tampons”. Quality menstrual cups are approved by the US Federal Drug Agency and cost about US$10 each.
Many women in the Global South cannot afford to buy period products and use cloth rags to absorb their menstrual blood. This causes discomfort, infections and social shame associated with leaking and smelling. Girls and women using cups anywhere in the world – in school, field, home or office – can concentrate more. They are more likely to attend school, and more productive for their families and economies.
The savings made from using menstrual cups counter ‘period poverty’. In Kenya, girls exchange sex for pads and face unwanted pregnancy or STDs, including HIV. The introductions of menstrual cups create an effective entry point to discuss sexual and reproductive health. When provided with menstrual cups, girls, women and their families appreciate the savings, leaving more money for food and school books.
The use of cups in Malawi illustrates their social and development impact:
Menstrual cups were developed by women, for women. The menstrual cup is not a new technology – but it is revolutionary. It was invented by an American woman and patented in 1937. In 2002, two women in Brighton, UK, made the first medical-grade silicone cups, at first advertised for women to use at music festivals. The cup soon caught on through word-of-mouth, with little commercial marketing
Using more menstrual cups would:
Reduce ocean and environmental waste. Overcome knowledge and cultural barriers with training & information. Improve women’s comfort and economic lives. Increase environmental justice. Challenge gender economic barriers. Enhance six of the Sustainable Development Goals Pioneer a new technology which reduces damage to our natural world.