Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

An unsanitary state of affairs

The average amount of blood lost in a menstruation is about 35 millilitres, which means that if a woman has 12 periods a year, she loses about half a litre of blood a year for about 30 years. The age at which women start menstruating is getting younger and younger, meaning that girls attending primary school generally have their period from about 11 years old until they are in their forties.

The result: This may not feel significant to you, and those of you who are squeamish about blood can relax because the gory details are finished for now. What is obvious from this drop-by-drop analysis of women’s menstrual cycles is that they use a lot of blood. This blood must be “managed” for want of a less sterile world. This means that women must use some form of sanitary product to stem the flow so that they can continue with their lives as expected. The options: tampons and sanitary pads.

The result: In her lifetime, the average woman uses 11 000 tampons, or 22 sanitary products (pads or tampons per period). In South Africa with the average tampon costing about R1.50 each (yes, that means R33 a period, or R16 500 in her lifetime) and a pack of 10 sanitary pads costing R18 (which translates to about R36 a period, or R19 800 in her lifetime). This means that having a period is an expense that many cannot afford. Most South Africans still live below the poverty line, which means that they must use alternative means of stemming the flow. These include using towelling or material which is rewashed. However, in some cases this too is unaffordable.

The result: According to the department of health it’s school absenteeism for up to one week a month for young girls. School ablution facilities in SA aren’t in an excellent state of repair, and the cost of sanitary towels and tampons means that often young women resort to the use of other options such as sponges, which are not hygienic. This significant absence from school (nearly a quarter of the entire year and even more so of the academic year) leads many girls to drop out of school.

The result: A natural part of their growth and development is limiting another part of their growth and development because of economic disempowerment. What happens when young girls drop out of school is that they lose access to other forms of economic empowerment and thus remain trapped in situations of dependence, which are linked to inability to negotiate safe sexual relations, or to leave violent relationships.

The solution: According to the ANCYL and more recently according to President Zuma the state will provide free sanitary towels to women who cannot afford them — 51% of the population is female, and if we say that half of those women cannot afford sanitary ware (about 12.83 million women), this will cost the national government R5 542 560 000 a year. That is a fairly significant amount of money. This is not only expensive but it is also terrible for the environment with most of these tampons and pads ending up in landfills (if you bin them) or the ocean (if you flush them). While I commend the ANCYL and the Presidency for recognising that women’s access to sanitation should be a right, and not a privilege, I think there is a smarter solution.

The smarter and environmentally friendly solution: The Mooncup. The Mooncup is a silicon cup that can be inserted into the vagina, emptied, rinsed and reused for a number of years. Made from medical grade silicone, the Mooncup is latex-free and contains no dyes, toxins or bleaches (which are never great for your vagina). It can last between five and 10 years. It is available in South Africa, and it sells for about R400.

Let’s do the maths: R400 for 10 years = R40 a year (or slightly more than one box of pads/tampons). So to purchase Mooncups for the same 12.83 million women would cost an initial R5 132 000 000, but this cost would cover the next 10 years for those women. In addition, it is better for the environment because it is reusable.

It must be noted that the fact we are having this discussion at all is significant and I truly commend those in government for opening the door to discussion, and many women’s eyes to the luxuries they don’t even realise they have. Nevertheless, I think it is worth investigating the Mooncup as an alternative. Don’t you?

Here is a link to a list of stockists of the Mooncup in South Africa.

  • Ladyfingers

    R400 for a silicone cup? Is it hand-carved by under the light of the full moon or something?

  • Sandra

    For once Jennifer you are on to a real issue instead of a whole lot of rhetoric. I would support the idea of a moon cup.

  • ian shaw

    As an ignorant male, I have just one question: how did our grandmothers manage without modern insertable hygienic tampons, plastic vaginal cups, etc.? Or were they also too poor to afford whatever was available in those days?
    I guess, today’s youth born into a world of TV ads, cellphones, automobiles, rock music, sushi and single-malt whiskey etc. cannot imagine how the world could exists for hundreds of years without such appurtenances.

  • Carol

    Great article Jen. Really something to consider.

  • Judith

    Thanks Jennifer – it is such a suitable solution to the problem! And, if enough are purchased,perhaps the cost will come down. These are such useful items and non embarrassing. I cannot forget the many times that I have leaked all over myself when I was younger

  • Acute Angina

    I have to agree with you that “dyes, toxins or bleaches are never great for your vagina”. The cup is better than toxic waste from used Tampaxes. The decreasing age of puberty is very disturbing, and from an evolutionary perspective, peculiar. Children still playing with dolls able (but certainly not ready) to have their own children? The Gods play jokes on us sometimes.

  • Kaytee

    @Jen: Just out of curiosity, have you used the mooncup and if so how did you find it? Or do you know anyone who has?

    @Ian: Our grannies stayed home during their period (which is what Jen is objecting to), or used other solutions (including washable cotton materials and so forth) which are just not suitable for modern lifestyles. I, modern youth that I am, would sell my mother rather than use the solutions my gran used for her menses.

  • Chantelle

    Ian, many of our grandmothers went to school untill they “became a woman”, and then stayed at home and found a husband, and even fewer if any of our great- and great-great grandmothers went to school. As a matter of fact, I was told by my grandmother that a young lady should not even appear in public during her periods. Times they are a changing and girls are now entitled to education, so what our grandmothers did or used is besides the point. Many schools now allow girls to wear pants, especially during winter,and a bulky towel or sponge would certainly be very embarassing. Wearing a dress during that time will also be a dead giveaway. Comprendo?

  • Mooncup convert (non yoghurt-knitting)

    “R400 for a silicone cup? Is it hand-carved by under the light of the full moon or something?” Ladyfingers

    – that is medical grade silicone don’t forget, although in the eyes of some markets it would be viewed as a ‘luxury’ item and attract a higher price in those markets.

    Good article!

    The difficulty is the initial outlay, but in the longer term the Mooncup is more cost effective (paying for itself within a year) and is certainly better for the woman and the environment.

  • MLH

    Had to do a quick retake there…I thought I saw ‘a cute vagina’.
    Well, Jennifer, we weren’t having this discussion, you were.
    But yes, it’s a point of interest. I suggest someone looks into whether we could bring the price down for bulk purchases. Of course, then you’d have to get past those who believe that inserting anything is not good for you, so the state could employ hundreds of counsellors to demonstrate how to use a moon cup. Now why does that take me back to the urban legend that described demonstrating condom usage on a broom handle? When the female partner fell pregnant, the condom was still on the broom handle.

  • Tlanch Tau

    Brilliant article Jen and yes great idea you suggested if it works. The government and the Youth League put something forward and it’s up to the like of you who are more informed to chip in and suggest things like that. Provided we can mass produce them in this country and they can benefit the economy. Or not. Either way, the means of you communicating this to the government are there. Also very said that we still have people living below the poverty line, it’s really sad indeed.

  • Tim Jackson

    I was shocked by this article. It had simply never occurred to me that so many women, right in my own country, were having to endure such circumstances. I feel somewhat ashamed.

  • Gail

    Wow Jen! You know there is a guy who has started a similar movement with shoes? I have to admit reading the article was a bit squeamish making but I had NO idea that girls in the townships and elsewhere were actually missing school because of this. Is there no way we could actually get the word out there about this and do a similar thing where everytime a girl in the western world buys one whoever started this business could donate one to a girl in Africa? Also if one thinks about this perhaps it would bring down teenage pregnancy and even AIDS.
    Yes Ian my mother who is 89 had to use washable towelling which was packed into her luggage by her mother who told her when she asked that it would be explained to her what they were when she needed to know. OMG I can’t believe little girls in this day and age still have to endure this????

  • Lizzabetty

    Great article Jen. The challenge though is behaviour modification, getting women to be use the moon cup…may be Glad Rags? We tried this in Zimbabwe with a small group and the women were “icky” about using the cups.

  • Joy-Mari

    Oy, I’m a bit late to this discussion but there are South African alternatives to the mooncup — miacup and Mpower Menstrual Cup. Please support one of these companies — they do a ton of upliftment work in South Africa and their products are cheaper than the mooncup.

    Yes, the initial outlay is quite large but it’s only large in comparison to the cost of a packet of pads or tampons.

    There are also cloth menstrual pads available, some of which come in gorgeous designs. And yes, modern non-hippy women use them. There are a ton of options available — some women even make their own towels.

  • thulisile Mhlungu

    This has been on my mind! Great article and very informative. I am a mother of 2 in Durban and I have decided to something. I have asked friends to donate a packet or packets of sanitary towels and I deliver to local rural schools, orphanages and children’s homes. The challenge and anxiety for me is sustainability. With education this may just work. I want to try it first and then introduce it to the girls.