In 2009, when Avani Mathur* was on her way to Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal, for the biennial Boom Festival, she got her period. Now at no rate was this an extraordinary occurrence, except the timing was rather inconvenient for the 33-year-old lawyer — Boom is one of Europe’s most popular counterculture festivals which espouses a self-sustainable culture of collecting one’s own waste and recycling. “I was camping at the festival and while the grounds offered organic toilets, they were absolutely filthy. Besides, I didn’t want to be the odd one out using disposable tampons and sanitary pads and there were no places really to dispose of such things, the bathrooms were communal,” says Mathur.
She stepped into a departmental store to look for a solution and found the menstrual cup. “I bought the Mooncup. It’s a bit rubbery, folds and slips in easily. It was washable and reusable and I would probably use it again, though it’s pretty hard to find a nice one in India,” she says. Not anymore. At least three Indian companies manufacture and sell menstrual cups today and growing awareness about the product is leading several women to make the switch.
A menstrual cup is shaped like a bell and is usually made of medical grade silicone. It is flexible and is worn inside the vagina to catch menstrual blood. Once full, it can be emptied into the toilet or sink, washed and re-inserted. The cup does not pose a hindrance to activities such as swimming and yoga, but you should avoid inverted poses all the same. “I mainly work from home, but I do spend a lot of time outside and until recently, travelled a fair amount. Before, I used disposable pads and hated the rash and irritation they caused me, not to mention the hassle of disposing of them wherever I went,” says Sunayana Roy, 33, writer and theatreperson. The Bangalore resident first heard about menstrual cups from a friend in an email group and, in late 2009, she ordered the Keeper online. Available in America since 1987, the Keeper is arguably the world’s first commercially viable menstrual cup. “It is made of latex and I chose it because it seemed a better choice at the time than silicone. Insertion and removal were not huge problems but it took me some time to achieve a good seal and avoid leaks,” she says.
A few months after Roy began using the Keeper, Ashish Malani’s MediAceso Healthcare Pvt Ltd launched the Shecup in January 2010. “At the time, there were only six-seven global brands and we were not only the first in India but in Asia as well,” says Malani, a chartered accountant in Mumbai. He started the company with his brother Manish, and a handful of young professionals, who volunteer time to conduct menstrual health management awareness programmes in rural and urban educational institutes, women’s groups, housing societies and even at offices of the Taj group, Jet Airways, and Indigo Airlines. “Since we have no full-time employees, we are able to keep the cost low. A Shecup sells for Rs 695 along with an instruction booklet, wipes and a pouch,” he says.
Malani has faced several challenges in marketing the Shecup in India, and the impediment is closely linked to the ways in which women’s bodies are controlled by their families. “Conservative societies like ours do not accept internal application sanitary protections, such as tampons and the menstrual cup, especially before marriage,” he says. The Shecup has been tested as per US pharmacopoeia rules. In 2012-13, it was distributed as a part of a research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conducted by two American universities in 60 villages in Jehanabad district in Bihar.
The two other brands available are SilkyCup (currently running trials) and the Vcup (launched in 2013). Manufactured by Earth Care Solutions, a waste management service provider in Thrissur, Kerala, the Vcup is available for Rs 970 (inclusive of courier charges) and comes with a cup, a packet of soap strips, a sanitiser pen, four coin tissues, a user guide and a cotton pouch. “As soon as our product was ready, we launched our website and Facebook page. We placed ads in trade magazines and began talking to women’s self-help groups in Kerala. We go to schools, residences and have one-on-one interactions as much as possible,” says Rajesh Pisharody, chief operating officer of Earth Care Solutions. Approximately 25 units of the Vcup are sent out from the factory in Ahmedabad, to buyers in Bangalore, Pune and Chennai every month.
If the menstrual cup has to gain a toehold in India, it has to address the issue of affordability. A 2011 AC Nielsen and Plan International survey showed that of India’s 355 million menstruating women, only 12 per cent used sanitary napkins, 70 per cent women said that their families were unable to afford them. In comparison, menstrual cups are exorbitant. Amazon sells Indian brands such as Alx Care (Rs 700), SilkyCup (Rs 1,000) as well as international versions such as the DivaCup (Rs 2,690) and Lunette (Rs 2,845).
Malani says that a menstrual cup, if used properly, can last for decades. With the Shecup, the costs can be recovered within a year of use. “Even if your menstrual cup costs Rs 3,000, a good quality one can last for a minimum of three years. I remain cautious about cheap products, so I would say invest in a good make,” says Amruta Patil, writer and painter, who uses a size B Mooncup. “I only use my cup, except during train travel and overnight bus journeys that have dodgy bathroom breaks. The reason for this is that immaculate hygiene is the only demand the product makes of you. Your fingers need to be very clean. You need a place where you can tip over and wash it out. And the cup requires sterilisation-by-boiling between one menstrual cycle and the next. It’s a commitment, but one that most mindful, responsible women would not shun,” she says.
For those who can invest in the cup, its biggest draw is its environmental benefits. In an article published in 2013, Down To Earth calculated 36 million Indian women used sanitary napkins every month. “At an average usage of 12 napkins per woman per month, this would add up to 432 million soiled pads, weighing a staggering 9,000 mega tonnes, enough to cover a landfill spread over 24 hectares,” the article reports.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is a recent convert and is “evangelical about going green”. “The reason I’m telling people to switch is just the sheer amount of non-biodegradable waste that’s accumulating all over the planet. We may not be able to stop the flow of waste personally, but we can at least slow it down by our choices,” says the 33-year-old author. Madhavan uses the Shecup and while she is getting accustomed it, there is room for improvement. “You have to first make an online bank transfer, then send them your details, and then they courier it to you. Also, I’d like different sizes. Currently, the Shecup comes in a one-size-fits-all, which as we know, is not the case with the human vagina,” she says.
The story appeared in print with the headline The Cup Will Set You Free