For a few months now, Afifa has been consciously cutting plastic out of her life and becoming more environmentally aware. Not surprisingly, there were some roadblocks, one of the biggest of which was her lifeline for five days every month — sanitary napkins.
Three months ago, the entrepreneur was scrolling through Instagram when she came across an advertisement for something rather strange — a menstrual cup. She thought this could be the answer to her plastic roadblock and immediately placed an order.
“I thought it was something that would work. I’d been cutting out plastic and anything biodegradable anyway so why not give it a try,” she says talking to Dawn. “I wish it had come into my life 10 years ago,” she adds.
“For decades women have been using cloth, cotton and variations of the two to soak up their monthly cycle, the cup has been like a revolution for women,” says a woman from Karachi who uses the DivaCup, a foreign brand, which costs around Rs5,000.
“In Pakistan, going into a grocery store to buy a packet of sanitary pads or tampons is nothing less than a public shaming — it has to be wrapped in a paper bag before it makes it to the counter and double wrapped when you take it home,” she says.
Ramsha, a teacher, shares a similar experience. “I wanted a menstrual cup and was planning on asking a cousin to bring it from abroad but then I came across Recircle.life, a company based in Lahore that makes menstrual cups,” she says.
“I first came across menstrual cups while I was living in a tree house in Laos. I was travelling for work with 10 other people when I got my period — and no one had pads as everyone was using menstrual cups,” she says.
According to Ramsha, using the cup has been convenient and clean. “I was worried about using it at first but I called one of the company’s co-founders and watched Youtube videos,” she says.
Her mother, however, doesn’t know that she uses a cup. Nor do other women in her family. “I don’t know how they would react as there are a lot of misconceptions about it especially with concerns to a girl’s virginity etc. When I told my friends at work, initially they were not very encouraging but now they are also using it,” she adds.
Earlier this year, many women in the country were outraged after the central censor board banned Bollywood star Akshay Kumar’s PadMan — a film about a man who started making low-cost sanitary napkins after discovering his wife’s lack of access to them in a small town.
The board claimed that the film was a taboo topic and thus not fit to be screened in the country. Pakistani women were surprised as to why something natural like periods, feminine hygiene and women’s health was taboo.
This led to an interesting conversation and something that Wasma Imran and Mahin Khan — co-founders of Recircle.life, the first registered company that manufactures and sells menstrual cups and eco-friendly products — brought up during talks at universities and colleges.
“We asked the women how they felt when this happened and they were angry as to why something that was so natural was such a taboo,” says Ms Imran, talking to Dawn.
“About two years ago we were talking about a girl in Africa who couldn’t go to school because she was on her period and how around the world many women and girls were crippled because of this — we wondered if it was the same in Pakistan,” she says.
According to Ms Imran, who also works for the Punjab government, she was scared the first time she used a cup but after that she realised it was something every woman needed to try.
“The first time I used a cup, I didn’t tell my mother. However, when I eventually told her, she looked like she was going to faint. My father on the other hand was very supportive,” she says.
Many people have asked Ms Imran why the switch is important, she explains that menstrual cups unlike pads and tampons can be reused for up to 10 years.
These cups are made of silicon — pads and tampons have more than 80 per cent of plastic. If every woman uses around 11,000 in a lifetime can you imagine the kind of negative impact this has on the environment? When the used pads and tampons are dumped in landfill or the ocean where they release harmful toxins which damages the environment more,” she explains.
The cups save money in the long run and are good for vaginal health as well — pads and tampons have a lot of chemicals which can change pH levels and increase chances of getting infections.
There is change coming about, she says, “When we started out, people sent in a lot of questions and we made around five to six sales the day we launched the website.”
“Today, we’ve sold over 400 cups. We get good feedback which helps us work on our product more,” she says.
Originally published in Dawn, June 26th, 2018