In the year 2012, I joined Bachelors in Development Studies at National College. It was after joining the college that I unearthed my passion for traveling and research. As part of the course requirement, we had field visits every semester. It was during these field visits that I began to realize how challenging menstruation was for girls and women especially when it came to traveling. The challenge was posed by lack of proper toilets, dirty toilets, and water scarcity in rural parts of Nepal.
Before this, menstruation as an issue for me was limited to the discomfort felt during periods and restrictions in certain physical activities only. Not to mention my skepticism towards the chemical used in the sanitary napkins which can cause potential infections. Apart from that, being brought up in Kathmandu I have always been privileged enough to have access to sanitary napkins and clean water and toilet facilities.
It was only after I began my travels that I realized the gravitas of the menstrual hygiene management issue. Though it was of an inconvenience for me for a few days of traveling only, I could not detach myself from thinking and realizing the pain women in rural areas of Nepal have to go through every month. It was during this phase when the issue of menstruation started becoming very personal to me.
In the year 2015, I was fortunate to meet Anne Kukuczka, a German social and cultural anthropologist. Her love for Nepal and its culture motivated her to visit Nepal for the first time in 2005 to volunteer in an education project for street children, girls from rural areas and illiterate women for 8 months. After that, she visited Nepal frequently as part of her studies and work. It was during her stay in rural parts of Nepal that she became aware of the difficult situation women and girls in Nepal face during the menstruation.
With that she decided to address the issue of menstrual health management by familiarizing women and girls to ecology and healthy menstrual management. By initiating a fiscally sponsored project named ‘Putali Nepal’ together with her friend Linda Kuhne, Anne decided to tackle the women’s issues by bringing women’s empowerment and ecology together. Being a menstrual cup user herself, she decided to address menstruation in a unique way by providing workshops on safe menstrual sanitary options (menstrual cup) and raise awareness through comic on menstruation.
Exploring the Issue
A Nepali school girl is drawing Putali Nepal's mural in her sketch book.
Photo Credits: Putali Nepal
In Nepal, a lack of safe and affordable sanitary menstrual options has led to serious health problems; uneasiness, and absence from school and the workplace for many girls and women. In addition, menstruation is a topic often touched by shame and concealment. As a consequence, many women and girls have very limited or no knowledge on their own bodies.
Unavailability of menstrual sanitary options has also led to drop out of majority of girls from schools. They are found frequently missing classes due to shame and stress caused by it. In addition, toilet facilities in most schools are extremely basic. They are unhygienic and without running water (Oster & Thorton, 2009). Hence, during menstruation majority of girls choose to avoid school and stay at home.
Moreover, menstruation management approaches such as sanitary napkins are not obtainable in rural areas and even if they are, it is too costly to afford for the majority of Nepalese women and girls residing in rural areas. As a consequence, the majority of adolescent girls and women are left with no other choice than to rely on unhealthy, unhygienic, and potentially dangerous methods such as dirty old rags, scraps of cloth, or newspapers. This can potentially lead to various infections affecting their health.
There is a need to take impactful actions on the issue of menstruation by generating unique and innovative solutions in Nepal. Introducing women and girls healthy menstrual management method which is environmentally friendly as well can be one of the ways to address this need.
On the other hand, considering that sanitary napkins as damaging to the environment, making a transition from rags/cloths to menstrual cups, will produce lesser waste compared to the use of sanitary napkins.
An individual goes through approximately 11,000 disposable pads and/or tampons in a lifetime - multiplying that number by everyone on this planet that gets his or her period and that results in a fairly large amount of waste (almost 200,000,000 kilograms). While the actual products already contribute largely to the problem of waste, we should also take the life-cycle of the products into consideration (Organiccup, 2018).
First of all, the raw material extraction, which involves the production of cotton (a very water-intensive process; cotton is considered the world’s “thirstiest crop,” requiring almost 3 liters of water to grow just one little bud) and most use non-organic cotton, which has been saturated in pesticides and insecticides. Secondly, most pads and tampons also contain chemicals which is environmentally harmful pollutant. While the products sit in landfills, these chemicals get soaked up by the earth and are released as pollution into groundwater and air polluting the air and land around (ibid).
Menstrual Cup as a Sustainable Solution
Photo Credit: Putali Nepal
Menstrual Cup is a healthier, more sustainable, cost-effective and eco-friendly alternative to pads and tampons. Made from 100 % soft, medical-grade silicone, it is safe, comfortable and hygienic and lasts for 10 years. Unlike disposable period products, menstrual cups are reusable for years and it has a minimal impact on the environment compared to tampons and pads.
Menstrual Cups are life changing and social issue: The cup can be used for up to 12 hours and as they last longer than a pad or tampon it makes them ideal for women living in areas with no toilets, electricity or running water (Ruby Cup, n.d)
Menstrual Cups are eco-friendly: Due to its long lifespan using a menstrual cup saves the environment a lot of disposable hygiene products every year. Sanitary pads or tampons, which are often non-biodegradable and bleached with harmful chemicals takes between 500 to 800 years to decompose. One menstrual cup will save the environment for one truckload of waste in 10 years for every single person who switches to a cup (ibid).
Menstrual Cups are economically viable: As one cup lasts up to 10 years, an individual can have long-term savings of more than 95% from one time investment (in Nepal Menstrual Cup costs NRS 2000 on an average) (ibid).
The table below will give an idea of the cost incurred in buying sanitary Napkins in Nepal and the potential savings one can have (Bista, 2018).
We can conclude by saying that Menstrual cup is rash-free, trash-free and almost cash-free. In Nepal, especially in rural areas where sanitary napkins are not easily accessible and affordable and where there are no proper toilet facilities with clean water, menstrual cup can be a great alternative sustainable solution to deal with menstruation for women and girls.
My Personal Sustainable Journey with the Menstrual Cup
Photo Credit: Getty Images
In the year 2019, Anne and Linda both reached out to me as they were looking for someone interested in women’s issue, entrepreneurship and sustainable development to handover their project. After the success of Putali Nepal and the remarkable work it had done for the past 4 years, I was positive to give continuity to the work that had already had sustainable solution embedded in it.
On March 2019, along with four other colleagues, I took over the project and established Putali Nepal as a not-for-profit business. By using Putali Nepal as a platform I want to continue the work Anne and Linda had begun and contribute to opening up conversations on periods in private and public spaces and make menstrual health a more visible topic. By working in Putali Nepal I have come to realize that sustainable long-term solutions need to go hand in hand with an increased ecological awareness that takes into account the consequences of our consumption practices.
Ever since I have embarked on the journey to tackle menstrual health management issues in Nepal through a sustainable solution approach, I have come to realize that the first and the most crucial step required was to make changes in my own lifestyle before I reached out to people asking them to change theirs. Thus, immediately after establishing the enterprise in March 2019, I decided to switch to menstrual cup. Moreover, it made no sense to me to reach out to other women and girls until I experienced the benefit of using menstrual cup myself, especially when there are myths and taboos associated with menstruation.
It took couple of months for me to prepare myself mentally and to be well informed about the menstrual cups before I used it. I have been a menstrual cup user for the past eight months and I could not have felt more empowered and happy for the little yet meaningful contribution I believe I am doing from my side for environment protection. Moreover, I have been able to save up to NRs 3000 through the one time investment of NRs 2500 in the past eight months. Though this amount of NRs 3000 looks small as of now, in the long-term I see a long-term saving of a higher amount.
I want to make a difference in the society by using education as a platform to empower people. Therefore, I make a deliberate effort to reach out to girls and women around my periphery and talk to them about proper menstruation health management and introduce them to menstrual cup. Deriving out my own experience I make sure to explain the economic, social and environmental benefits associated with it as well.
Girls and women are very skeptical about using the menstrual cup when they first hear about it. However, after giving them detailed information with regards to its usage and sharing them resource materials they have been quite positive about its use. I am satisfied and I feel successful to have had the journey of 8 months where I have changed not just my lifestyle around menstrual hygiene management through the sustainable solution but have been able to join hands with other women and young girls in Kathmandu and in rural areas too.