For generations, women have been forced to be hyper-efficient, to deal with their needs and put them to the side as fast as possible. Society has told women in more than one way to treat their very natural menstrual cycle as something to be hidden, something shameful, something that happens in the background and doesn’t need much attention.
The shame in some places extends to the bigger problem of “period poverty,” or the lack of access to basic reproductive health education, necessities and sanitary solutions. Millions of women and girls across the globe, in all communities, have to confront this reality and navigate the minefield that is reproductive health.
Not only is it a major women’s health issue, period poverty also contributes to the environmental crisis as the plastic waste that comes from menstrual products is labelled as medical waste that does not need to be tracked. Not much has been done to figure out how to dispose of it properly, or to find alternatives.
Over the course of a lifetime, a single menstruator will use up to 5.000-15,000 pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste that takes around 500 years to decompose.
Karina Boers, a project manager working in the circular economy and co-founder of Organicup Egypt, was back home in Egypt for the holidays when she experienced some of the challenges women face while on their period.
“Why are we hiding the most natural thing in the world? You can see that I’m a woman, you know we get our periods –– especially in a culture that’s so fond of children and family,” says Karina.
Her personal solution was to find a product that she could wear throughout the day without needing to change. “I had never tried a menstrual cup before and when I did, it felt revolutionary.”
Karina’s intrigue led her to do more research and she found that there were no menstrual cup retailers in the Middle East. Once she flew back to Paris where she lived and worked, she put together a pitch and sent it out to several manufacturers of the menstrual cup.
“I addressed the cultural differences and the things that set us Egyptians apart. At first, the manufacturers were concerned as they didn’t want to get into trouble with the governments for speaking openly about periods and having a product that you insert.”
The team at Organicup was interested in Karina’s pitch and flew to Egypt where she took them on a tour to the different parts of Cairo, from the more upscale type to more underdeveloped areas. “They saw different types of women and how they express their religion, how they express their beliefs and themselves,” she says. “They jumped on board after that and gave us the rights to be their exclusive distributor.”
Moving back to Egypt, she began to work in waste management and focused on the waste created by the use of pads and tampons, noticing that despite the environmental challenges the country faces, women still didn’t have options when it came to menstrual products.
Since the topic was still relatively sensitive, Organicup took a no-pressure approach by offering samples and surveys to women, asking for their feedback.
“Most weren’t ready to talk about it and we didn’t pressure them to. We put up the online shop to see how it goes, and at first they were very hesitant. Now people are talking about it and there are amazing platforms such as Mother Being [which educates women on reproductive health] and Urban Earthlings Egypt, which sells sustainable products. There are yoga centers that all participated to tell women ‘hey, here is this product, if you’re up for it, buy it, if not, that’s fine.’”
Organicup Egypt supports women by facilitating a deeper understanding of how the period works and giving women a space where they can ask questions without shame. They provide information on the different ways in which they can insert the cup, how their bodies might be different, which sizing works best for them and so on.
“It took me six months to get the hang of it and there have been moments when I have thrown it in the corner saying I won’t use it again,” she says. “Every woman is different, they are different in the way they deal with their own body, how comfortable they are squatting down, reaching for it, understanding how to release the vacuum. It takes practice and patience.”
“Some women have a tilted cervix. You have to properly insert it so it doesn’t leak etc. Some know how to position it, some might never get the hang of it,” Karina explains.
The lack of education is a severe problem as currently in society it is more common for a woman to be unfamiliar with her body. “We get questions like ‘can I go to the bathroom while using the cup?’ and it’s like yes, because it’s not the same hole.”
This unawareness is deeply rooted, and also plays into the waste that we create and the harm that it has on our environment. The general population still, despite conversation and convention, are unable to grasp the severity of our consumption habits.
In order to tackle these issues of period poverty, grassroots and community-based initiatives are an essential long-term solution to the problem. While reusable products are the way forward, it is still not a solution for communities where women don’t have access to proper WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) services.
The issue of stigma has led to a debilitating lack of research around women’s bodies, which despite the technological advancement, if not addressed, will continue to contribute significantly to the problem.