In 2018, you met Pad Man through a movie. This year, let us introduce you to Cup Woman. Meet Vicky Nolan, a 29-year-old woman from Northern Ireland currently living in Goa and known as ‘Cup Woman’. She is doing awareness regarding menstrual hygiene and the impact of sanitary pads on the environment. She did her Graduation in politics completed MA in education but has chosen to start a campaign regarding menstrual hygiene and practices. She talked about why she decided to promote menstruation cup, and she said “I have used a menstrual cup now for almost three years and it changed my life and the way I think about my period. I wished someone had told me about the cup when I was 14, but hey, better late than never.”
Further, she explained in detail, “Every woman should at least be aware of the alternatives to conventional tampons and sanitary pads. Where I live in North Goa; there is a huge rubbish problem and particularly when it comes to sanitary waste. I was horrified to see women burning bags of bloody tampons on the road,or seeing pads floating in toilets or left on the pavement with dogs and cows eating them! There is a lack of awareness and many women don’t know or are too embarrassed to deal with their period waste appropriately. The environmental aspect was more important to me than any other.”
Most women, even educated women, do not even know what impact sanitary napkins have on our environment. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 report, around 48% of rural women use sanitary napkins while in urban areas the percentage is about 77%. 1,13,000 tonnes of menstrual waste estimated annually. A sanitary napkin takes 500 to 800 years to decompose. About this situation, Nolan said, “The cup is the perfect solution with minimal environmental impact. They can even be recycled after five years.” She added, “For the most part, India is not a country where period talk is free or open. It is something that is often regarded as taboo or dirty. There are whole communities here that send menstruating women outside to sleep during that time of the month, and women cannot attend religious ceremonies or even enter a temple. That kind of inbuilt ‘period shame’ is hard to break.”
Well, these are the cold hard facts: women bleed. Half of the world’s population bleeds every month for 40 years. Get over it. It’s not dirty, unclean, nasty, and unnatural. Let’s open our minds and start talking about this biological function that women have.
“I want to start a dialogue,” she told me, “I am not going to tell women they should use a menstrual cup, it’s a personal choice at the end of the day, but I really believe every woman should know the ‘other’ options available. The cup is a cleaner, healthier, and more eco-friendly period choice. Compared to bleached cotton tampons and pads, the cup is made of medical grade silicone, so there is no nasty chemical in a very sensitive area. There is no irritation with the cup, and, again, no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) that is associated with using tampons. The cup also lasts for up to five years with care and cleaning, so it’s pretty much a zero-waste period, good for the planet, and great value for money. Sanitary protection is expensive here in India, so a cup is a worthwhile investment.”
Talking about women’s reactions to the cup, Nolan shared, “Since I have started this project, I hear many compliments about the menstrual cup from older women who remark what a great invention it is and how they wished they have had one during their time but alas no longer need them post-50! In India, the menstrual cup is generally a new product that people have never seen or heard of before, so explaining the concept and what it does is always a new challenge. Some women are too shy to ask questions, so it is my job to make them feel comfortable and give them accurate information. Anyone who knows me knows that my own touch of humour will put them at ease. Women come to me, they ask whatever they want–the most intimate, in-depth, detailed questions about the cup. ‘How do I put it in?’ ‘How do I know if it’s in correctly?’ ‘What if it leaks?’ I have sold cups to Indians, Brits, Spaniards, and Russians–getting women talking about it in whatever language they speak. Mothers often ask if teenagers and younger girls can use it. I always tell girls under 18 that if they can use a super tampon then inserting a small sized menstrual cup will be no issue. A cup might not suit every woman for whatever reason—medical, religious, what have you—so I have to know my limits, and I now offer a range of other eco-friendly period alternatives such as sea sponge tampons and organic, biodegradable sanitary pads made right here in Goa. The sponge tampons I hadn’t even heard of before I did my research. They have ethically harvested Mediterranean Sea sponges that can be cut to size, moistened, and inserted inside the vagina like a regular tampon. They are then removed, washed and reused for up to one year. There are some challenges but most women are very open to the idea of the cup, and thanks to word of mouth, awareness is growing.”
Nolan told me that there are so many myths about menstrual cup like ‘virgins can’t use cups’. “My reply is the same to every woman—‘this is a feminine hygiene product—it’s not a penis. It’s nothing to do with sex.’ A menstrual cup and a penis are two very different things! Another question is ‘Do we have to remove the cup to pee and poo?’ I politely had to inform them that period blood doesn’t come from the same place as pee or poo! Women have three different holes for three very different things. Women comment on its size and often ask ‘Will it hurt?’ When folded correctly to its smallest size, the cup should insert like a tampon, then pop open inside you and create a vacuum seal, staying in place for up to 10 hours. I can’t stress this enough–you have to practice inserting a cup before you start bleeding. Get used to it, folding it, inserting it, and removing it. If it’s painful, put some lubricant on it. But practice, practice, practice.”
Because of a lack of awareness and availability, women don’t have access to cups and other alternatives. She said, “I am the only person in Goa with cups right now. With a population of 1.31 billion people in India, half being women, period poverty is probably one of our biggest problems, and yet one of the least talked about. Many women, especially in rural areas are literally using and washing cotton cloth rags as period protection. This period stigma has to end. There must be greater input from public health departments and even women’s charities to give women the most basic needs.
“Dignify periods–don’t stigmatise them!” She exclaimed. “If every woman from the aged of 10 to 50 had access to a menstrual cup what a country this could be! There has to be a societal change.With so many people, it’s unlikely that, in the immediate future, anything of substance will be done to improve the lives of menstruating women in India. But it’s my job to make the menstrual cup available to those that want it now. Those women then go on to tell their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, girlfriends, best friends and others about the cup. Slowly, little waves of a period revolution start to happen. All I can hope for is that word of mouth will spread from my little bubble here in North Goa to the rest of India.”
Hopefully, this little but precious effort to save the environment in 2019 will move forward towards success.