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Menstrual cups offer cost-saving alternative for Malawi students

LILONGWE, Malawi –  Prisca Gama, 22, and Given Mwira, 26, remember first trying the menstrual cup in November 2016. The women, both fourth-year students at Mzuzu University in northern Malawi, quickly became enthusiastic about the product, finding it to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

“When we use menstrual pads, we struggle [with] how to dispose [of] them due to the way the menstrual pads are made, while with a menstrual cup, you just empty the cup, clean it and use it again,” said Ms. Mwira.

Ms. Mwira and Ms. Gama were among 10 women at Mzuzu University who received training to educate their peers about using the menstrual cup.

Each of the trainees received 50 menstrual cups to distribute to interested women and girls. Within a week, all the cups had been given away, and demand remains high.

Menstrual hygiene and schooling

The menstrual cup was invented in the 1930s as an alternative means of menstrual hygiene management, and it has gained popularity in recent decades. But in Malawi, it is a very new product.

Menstrual hygiene management is a major concern for young women in Malawi and other developing countries. Lack of menstrual hygiene products, such as sanitary napkins and tampons, as well as lack of sanitary toilet facilities in schools, can lead to embarrassment and stigma for girls.

Girls even miss school during their periods, according to studies from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

UNFPA has long worked to improve girls’ access to menstrual hygiene supplies, for example by supporting training programmes that teach girls to make reusable sanitary pads. In 2016, UNFPA began to distribute the cup to gauge women’s and girls’ interest.

Ms. Gama said that menstrual cups are suitable for students, who tend to operate on a small budget. She said they would also be useful for rural girls, who often cannot afford sanitary pads.

The cups – provided for free – have a lifespan of about 10 years, and they have already saved money for Ms. Gama and her friends. They said they have used the savings to buy learning materials.

Keen interest, growing demand

The project’s outreach efforts aimed to raise awareness about the menstrual cup among university students. But Ms. Gama and Ms. Mwira said there has been interest beyond the university community, including among girls at the nearby El Pasco Secondary School.

“The demand for the menstrual cups is very high, especially among secondary school girls - [even more] than the university students,” said Ms. Gama.

They were able to allay numerous concerns about the cup, such it being uncomfortable, falling out or allowing spillage.

“When you are using the menstrual cup, you can do almost everything: run, do any sporting activity as well as attend classes,” said Ms. Mwira.

In total, the two women have distributed 100 cups and reached almost 150 girls with information.

Information and empowerment

Over 100 mentors have been trained in Malawi to raise awareness about the menstrual cup.

“To date, 4,600 menstrual cups have been distributed against the 5,000 menstrual cups that were procured,” said Humphreys Shumba, who is overseeing the menstrual cup project for UNFPA.

The project is also educating women and girls about their bodies and empowering them to discuss menstruation openly and knowledgeably, helping to undermine taboos around the subject.

Towera Munthali, a 29-year-old student at Mzuzu University, was reached by one of the mentors – her neighbour. She initially worried that the cup might not remain in place, or that it might disappear into her abdomen, but she now encourages friends and family members to also consider using it.

Ms. Munthali, who has since become pregnant and had a baby, looks forward to the cost savings the cup will provide in the future. “I will continue to use it when I resume my periods, because now I am breastfeeding and my baby is only two months now,” she said.

“I used to spend 1,000 kwacha [$1.40] every month to buy sanitary pads,” she added. “But with the menstrual cup, I don’t spend anything.”

- Henry Chimbali