By Alfred Muli,
Regional Program Manager-East Africa
I recently returned from a field visit to Malawi where we have about a dozen partners integrating Ruby Cup projects in their programs. I visited five of our partners including ActionAid Malawi, PCI Malawi, CARE Malawi and PSI Malawi. Our other partners in Malawi include Malawi Girl Guides Association, St. Peters Education Trust and Ufulu among others.
I was so excited to finally meet the amazing teams implementing Ruby Cup projects in diverse settings in this beautiful South African Country. Every Ruby Cup project is so similar yet so different due to the fact that we work with our partners to curate something that meets the local context and each community’s specific needs.
Successful pilot project: first the mothers, then the daughters
For instance, ActionAid Malawi ran a pilot project with mothers. They provided menstrual health workshops based on our curriculum where the women learned about their reproductive system and were given the choice of taking a Ruby Cup home.
Those that took a Ruby Cup were provided with mentoring and support. Once these older women saw the benefits of using a Ruby Cup they supported menstrual health trainers from ActionAid in training their daughters and other young women in the community as well as four schools in Ntchisi and Lilongwe districts in central Malawi.
This is huge in these areas where the myths around menstrual cups and virginity are prevalent.
It takes more than just access to period products
For Ruby Cup and our partners, the support we provide goes beyond access to products. It’s not enough to just donate cups and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. To truly empower women to be able to manage their menstruation it is also necessary to provide education.
All Ruby Cup interventions include an educational workshop by a trained Ruby Cup user and a follow-up mechanism with an emphasis on what we call ‘sustained support’. This is different in different places but ideally, we want new users to have someone with accurate information and honestly share their experiences the first time they used a Ruby Cup.
We provide Ruby Cups as just one option out of so many other menstrual materials and products hence the educational workshop benefits everyone who attends the training even if menstrual cups are not the best solution for them.
The power of peer to peer
Another one of our partners, PCI Malawi in the Zomba District of southern Malawi took a different approach. They trained a group of mentors and peer educators, who are referred to as ‘champions’.
These champions are adolescent girls from the community that already use Ruby Cups and have been trained on how to support others. They have frequent meetings with peers in ‘safe spaces’ to discuss issues affecting them. That way any girl who has doubts has someone in her community that she can consult.
‘At first, it was painful but when I tried the following month supported by the training and the mentors, I got used to it. Now I put it on with ease. Ruby Cup is a very good device it saves the cost of sanitary towels. ‘ - Amina, 16 years
As Amina, one of the champions mentioned, the first time using a menstrual cup can be very challenging. However with sustained support the adoption rate increases. We have learnt across our programs that it is important to follow up six weeks after the first training, six months later and after a year in order to obtain a figure of or close to 100% adoption rate.
The follow-ups provide an opportunity for the girls to share experiences. They are encouraged by how similar their experiences are to those of their peers and mentors. Not only do they overcome the fear of inserting a cup but they also receive the accurate information on body literacy to face harmful myths head-on!
Breaking with common myths about menstrual cups, periods and vaginas
At the community level, many girls in the Zomba district reported that their grandparents had asked if the cups would stretch the vagina or break their virginity and ruin their chances of getting married, or whether the cups worked as a contraception.
The girls were equipped with accurate and factual information to explain this to everyone who had such doubts. At times two or three girls would sit with peers and share what they learnt in the training. This generated a greater demand for education and the cups, something that our friends at PCI Malawi adopted and used to recruit girls to their program and safe spaces. These girls were referrals or requests via the champions.
Creating leadership skills that boost girls’ confidence
I was so inspired by how the project had brought out the leadership skills in these young women. One of the girls mentioned that every time a girl or even a woman had questions on menstruation, she was called upon. Older women would also consult her. She mentioned how this made her feel good and so proud to be of help to her community. Another girl mentioned that she was viewed as a role model now.
Generally, you could see the confidence in all these peer educators. They were even talking about how it was a big deal for them to be able to stand in front of people to talk about menstruation.
Ruth Kundecha from PCI Malawi informs me that for an older woman to consult a young woman in this particular community is a very rare occurrence and that she was even more proud of the girls for going out of their way to talk about menstruation with peers and mothers. The peer educators and mentors took the initiative to translate our training manual to Chichewa making it easier for the training to scale.
This is the PSI Malawi team. From R-L Chifundo Kuyeli, Reproductive Health Program Manager PSI Malawi; Jephta Mtema PSI Country Representative in Malawi; Caroline Basaka, Head of Reproductive Health Program PSI Malawi and myself
How can we get the fathers involved?
I asked the girls if they ever told their fathers they were using a Ruby Cup, they all laughed and said they hoped their mothers had told their fathers! This left me wondering how best we can engage fathers. As always, we will figure this out with our partners as they understand their context more than we can ever do.
Until the next Social Impact Update, enjoy these quotes from the champions of Zomba District on how the Ruby Cups impacted their lives: