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