Diva Cup Concerns in Africa

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Diva Cup Concerns in Africa

Yup. This one is about menstrual cups. Feel free to turn away. Though I’d rather you not. But it does get a little personal. And then a little practical. And then a little global. So, its your call.

menstrual cup

I used to pack box after box after box of tampons in my suitcases when we flew back to Africa from Minnesota. I would much rather have packed books or shoes or brown sugar but the tampons took priority. Currently stores in Djibouti are decently stocked, most of the time and more specifically one store, with tampons. Not many options in size or brand, but something is better than nothing. But then I became a Diva girl.

One menstrual cup and voila, an empty suitcase! No frantic search around the country for the last box of tampons! No resorting to diaper-like pads from the corner kiosk with adhesive that isn’t adhesive!

I’m also involved in education and a girl’s running team so when I read articles about people promoting the Diva cup in Africa, I get excited.

Menstrual supplies are expensive and when a family is deciding between eating in the morning or eating in the evening, there is no extra money for pads. Or if a family lives outside the city or far from a bus line in the city, finding a store that sells pads is almost impossible. Women wear multiple layers of clothing and during their monthly period, often the undermost layer becomes a sort of towel. They will stay home, stay out of school, stay away from work and visiting.

So the Diva cup looks like a perfect solution. One cup, one financial investment that can last for years. It can be worn up to twelve hours at a time, allowing for a full work or school day. They are easy to clean with a minimal amount of water.

The question is: Are they making a difference? More studies are needed on whether or not the cups make actual, numerical differences in the days of school or work missed. The comments in this article (How Menstrual Cups are Changing Lives in East Africa) by Sabrina Rubli highlight this need.

The most thorough studies I could find online have mostly been conducted in Nairobi, Kenya. The studies do a good job demonstrating that women and schoolgirls are interested in the cup and would be open to using it but they do little to discuss actual outcomes, real life changes as a result of the cup. So, lots of hope and potential, not a lot of hard facts and evidence. Yet.

This could easily disintegrate into the idea that a miracle device will solve all the educational issues for girls in low-income countries. Rich westerners can toss some menstrual cups at a problem and be done with it. Voila, world saved. But I’m not saying don’t use or gift the menstrual cup. Do use it! Do gift it! Just don’t let the conversation or action end there.

Underlying, fundamental issues remain and must also be addressed. There is no single solution. Curing worms, providing menstrual cups, donating school supplies…

Clean water. Are women able to access clean water?

Available and sanitary toilets. Are there clean, private latrine facilities?

Sexual ideas. Will a girl be seen as losing her virginity if she uses a cup? Many women don’t use tampons for this same reason.

Female circumcision. In places like Somalia, where the most severe form is practiced, there is no way to insert a cup until after a woman has had sex so it wouldn’t be feasible for schoolgirls.

Poverty. School days are missed for more reasons than menstruation. Girls need to work or need to stay home with younger siblings so their parents can work, families can’t afford school supplies, etc.

Cultural norms. Example: generosity is a wonderful thing but the idea common in some areas of sharing everything must be addressed. Girls and women often share clothes, pants, even underwear or menstrual rags.

Handing out the cups without discussing or addressing these areas won’t make much difference and could cause serious problems. I believe in development and aid, I live in Djibouti and work for a development organization for crying out loud! I also believe that assistance must go hand in hand with partnership, cultural understanding, education, and dialogue. These are being addressed in many locations and I’m excited about the possibilities.

Menstrual cups are one example of how a single solution, if only given as a handout, won’t be sufficient. But in places where these issues I mention above are being addressed and openly discussed in conjunction with aid, let the menstrual cups flow.

Here are a few (I only know what I have read online, I’m not personally connected to any of these):

Femme International

Keep a Girl in School

Ruby Cup

*image via wikimedia

15 Comments

  1. Sharon January 15, 2015 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    I have seen these promoted a lot more recently and have also been concerned about access to clean water and virginity issues – thanks for this.

  2. Clara January 15, 2015 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Ha – I blogged about menstrual cups today as well, albeit in a far less serious and more fluffy way – my post was about what to take with you when you move overseas, and why a mooncup might be a better alternative to boxes and boxes of tampons. I mention reusable nappies in the same way.

    http://expatpartnersurvival.com/2015/01/15/nappies-bread-makers-tampons-what-else-do-you-pack-when-you-move-overseas/

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 15, 2015 at 4:23 pm - Reply

      Ha! A good day to learn about the cup, indeed. I’m so thankful for it when we travel especially.

  3. Sher January 15, 2015 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    I’m also a diva girl. This started while living in Morocco and dealing with some of the same issues in terms of finding tampons. Do I think the diva cup is awesome? Absolutely! But, as you point out, it doesn’t automatically solve menstration problems in the developing world. In particular, I have discussed this issue with many Muslim women. For them, the virginity issue is the biggest hurdle. The cleanliness issue is very much secondary. As this is such a deep cultural issue, I have yet to come up with a good solution to this barrier. If you find one, please share!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 15, 2015 at 4:24 pm - Reply

      Keep the dialogue going, I’d love to hear from women as/if possible solutions come up. If I hear of some, I’ll write about it and please share too, if you do!

  4. Pamela January 15, 2015 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Apart from these very important concerns, menstrual cups have a harsh learning curve. Insertion is not innate at all. IMO cloth pads are a much more feasible response to the problem.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 15, 2015 at 4:22 pm - Reply

      Excellent point Paula. I didn’t write about it in the post, but I did have some, ahem, troubles in the beginning. And those cloth pads also address the virginity issue and FGM challenges.

  5. Tamsin January 15, 2015 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    Thanks for linking my page! Most menstrual cups come with a steep learning curve and can take a few cycles to learn how to use them correctly. Whilst cloth pads can solve that issue and are ideal with FGM challenges, they do require more investment and care. I would imagine washing a menstrual cup with soap and/or boiling in water to steralize is easier than washing cloth pads, but then I guess it depends on facilities available.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 16, 2015 at 4:18 am - Reply

      Yeah, so much is dependent on specifics in location and cultural norms. I am excited to hear about how people are thinking about these options and working on it. I would love to continue hearing more.

  6. Tamsin January 15, 2015 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    *reposting as my above comment had my web address typed incorrectly – so please can you delete that one*

    Thanks for linking back to my page! Most menstrual cups come with a steep learning curve and can take a few cycles to learn how to use them correctly. Whilst cloth pads can solve that issue and are ideal with FGM challenges, they do require more investment and care. I would imagine washing a menstrual cup with soap and/or boiling in water to steralize is easier than washing cloth pads, but then I guess it depends on facilities available.

  7. Colleen Mitchell January 16, 2015 at 4:01 am - Reply

    Thanks for this list, Rachel. People have made this same suggestion for the indigenous women we serve, but for many of the concerns you listed here, I do not see it as in ideal solution. I am super interested in learning more about the machine they man in India invented for his wife to make pads that become a micro-enterprise for many women. I think that may be a decent solution here. As for me, I too am grateful to be a Diva girl and not have to lug suit cases of tampons back here. Although I did used to secretly hope they got tagged for random inspections. 😉

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 16, 2015 at 4:19 am - Reply

      I hadn’t seen that, thanks! Will watch it today. And I’ll look up that sewing idea as well, what a great way to connect menstrual supplies with generating an income.

  8. Tamie January 16, 2015 at 6:21 am - Reply

    Diva cup seriously changed my life — I will never go back to pads or tampons even when back in Australia! Great list of the issues, Rachel. Femme International does some stuff in the north of Tanzania as well, and say they do lots of education. I also wondered whether the re-washable pads had fewer obstacles.

  9. Michaela January 18, 2015 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    I know that when I was in India, working in a gov. hospital, the idea of using a diva cup seemed impossible. I was so nervous to insert and clean and all that, if necessary, in some unclean environments. Did I mention I was IN a hospital. Ha. For that reason, I packed along tampons. Too bad, really. It just didn’t feel sanitary enough for me. I literally didn’t have soap to clean it while out and about or in hospital (shared bars of pink, cracked soap) :/

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