* Access to menstrual hygiene is related to gender equality in a crucial way. Lack of bathrooms or sanitary napkins is the primary reason for girls to drop out from school.
* I bought two for ₹500 (it was available on a discount) and it is supposed to last a person for five years. That works out to be about ₹8 a period.
* The municipality of Alappuzha was the first civic body in India to distribute 5,000 menstrual cups for free, in an eco-friendly sanitation drive.
“You feel almost evangelical about it,” said my friend over text. That’s exactly how I felt about the menstrual cup, after my first sanitary napkin free period.
Menstrual hygiene has a long, twisted history in India. Access to menstrual hygiene is related to gender equality in a crucial way; lack of bathrooms or sanitary napkins is one of the primary reasons why girls drop out of school. Whenever disaster hits, along with calls for food supplies and clothes, there is a demand for sanitary napkins. Yet, we were taxed (at 18 per cent GST) for our autonomy by the government until years of campaigning resulted in some relief in GST compensation.
India has the lowest penetration of sanitary napkins in the world. Reports by top business players in this segment (P & G, Johnson and Johnson) peg the penetration of sanitary napkins in India at 15-20 per cent of the population, though the government’s National Family Household Survey claims higher penetration (national average of about 48 per cent in rural, 58 per cent in urban areas). Prices of products are still high: An average 5-7 day period costs an average of ₹88, a significant chunk of the daily minimum average wage rate at ₹180.
Enter the menstrual cup. I bought two cups at a discounted price of ₹500 (for both). One cup is supposed to last for five years. That works out to be about ₹8 a period. Several brands have entered the space, and a cup is priced anywhere between ₹500 and ₹1,000. Not to forget the huge environmental benefit to using the cup: One sanitary napkin can take around 500-800 years to decompose. Data from Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation shows that 28 per cent of pads are thrown in mixed waste and end in the landfill, 28 per cent are thrown in the open, while 33 per cent are disposed via burial and 15 per cent are burnt, even though the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 clearly state that waste segregation has to be practised at source. The rules also mandate that waste generators need to work with local administration and set up waste management systems for sanitary waste. Packaging waste also needs to be accounted for by the companies.
The truth on ground couldn’t be further from this reality. Sanitary napkins and tampons also hold a risk of toxic shock syndrome, a rare but serious medical condition brought on by bacteria.
Reusable cotton pads are seen as a viable alternative to sanitary napkins, and there are many voluntary organisations working towards reusable pads. But these come with their share of problems — they take time to dry out, especially during the rainy season and winters.
The menstrual cup — being hailed by users and environmentalists — is not new. The first commercially used menstrual cup was invented and patented in the US in the 1930s by Leona Chalmers. I ordered a menstrual cup made of silicon. I learnt later that there are different sizes, for girls and women between the age of 18-44 and women who have delivered vaginally. It looked similar to an egg cup, made of medical grade silicone, with a thin snout, meant to be used to insert the product. One was as pink as the colour of the women’s reserved coach signs on the Delhi metro, but the other was a beautiful black chalice, soft to the touch, about a finger tall and half a finger wide.
The instruction manual said you had to fold it into a C-fold (the edge of the cup would go in) for better access. Once the cup was put in, it would pop, and the holes on the edge would create a suction. Pretty simple science.
My friend, a post-doctoral organic chemistry fellow and cup advocate, was coaching me all the way from California. The C-fold doesn’t work for everyone, try the punch down fold, she said, sending me a diagram and video to demonstrate the different folds. I was glad for that timely advice.
One common question that a lot of women have about the cup is, what if it leaks? I had that question too. Apparently, it is way more leak proof than sanitary napkins, and can last inside up to 12 hours. It has markings inside (10-30 ml) and a woman bleeds around 80 ml in her entire period. It will only leak if the cup fills up. Alternatively, if you do not insert it properly (the fold opens up once you push it inside and it ‘pops!’) it could lead to a leak. Thankfully, these scenarios didn’t play out with me.
Menstrual cups are supposed to have a steep learning curve. While I’m new to the cup, I have to admit that I had an easier time with it than I expected to. My friend’s words gave me encouragement, “The only problem that I have with the cup,” she said, “...is that I forget that I am on my period. I just pop it in when my app tells me it’s time, and it’s an easy ride.”
The cleaning of the cup is not the German expressionist horror film that we (or is it just me?) imagine it to be. It doesn’t need to be sterilised every time one changes it — a quick rinse under the tap will do. The thing that one needs to ensure is a pair of washed, sterile hands for this operation. The moment of truth for me was when I used it overnight, and slept in whatever position that I felt like and got a good night’s sleep. “Don’t freak out if it rides up, just walk a little bit and it will come down on its own,” was my friend’s piece of advice before I tried it.
Menstrual cups can be the key to liberation and access to all sorts of wonderful things — education and a livelihood for instance — by freeing women in developing countries from being confined to their homes during their period. The municipality of Alappuzha in Kerala was the first civic body in India to distribute 5,000 menstrual cups for free, in an eco-friendly sanitation drive in 2019. Women’s liberation? Hell yes! One can tell that a woman invented the menstrual cup. I am not going to miss any more swimming lessons or beach days!