Ufulu started off as a crowd-funding project after I realised that so many women living in Malawi, were in period poverty.
Period Poverty is defined as “a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints”, but it goes much deeper than this. Period Poverty is about women and girls suffering in silence, using unhygienic and unsuitable items as their sanitary products. Many feel unable to work or go to school for fear of blood leaking and staining their clothes, and due to the discomfort of using cloth rags for their periods, because they cannot afford anything else.
Between 1994 and 2004 I lived and worked throughout southern Africa and I knew and experienced first hand how hard it was to get hold of tampons and pads. But I never stopped to consider what females living in rural Africa used when they had their periods. In 2018 I took extended leave from my job in the UK and went back to Malawi for 2 months. Whilst there, I stayed with a friend on Likoma Island and befriended a woman who worked for him, called Nandi who lived and had grown up on the island.
Nandi and I became close over the course of my stay and had many girly chats. At the end of my trip, I gave Nandi all of the toiletries that I had not used, as a gift. Among them were a box of Lillets. I have used a cup for the last 5 years, but I always carry tampons with me, just in case. I had a box of 20 with me and when I gave these to Nandi her face lit up. I asked her what she normally used and she looked very embarrassed and told me that she used cloth rags. We are not talking small pieces of material - these are old t-shirts or large pieces of cloth, folded up to about the size of a small house brick, which she would then place in her pants and they would last for about 2 hours. We had a long talk, with me asking her lots of questions and I quickly realised how privileged and ignorant I had been. I knew how hard it was to find decent sanitary items in rural Africa, but I had never stopped to think about what the average Malawian woman would use. I was so ashamed at my lack of empathy.
When I returned to the UK, I sent Nandi a cup. I had already shown her mine and explained how easy it was to use and how long it would last for. She was over the moon to receive hers and called me using my friend’s phone to thank me and tell me how much it had changed her life.
There are millions of women like Nandi around the world, who suffer in silence and endure uncomfortable, unsanitary periods, simply due to a lack of availability of suitable products and the inability to afford them.
Periods are not a choice. The majority of females on the planet are going to have a period between their early teens and early 50s. Month on month, year after year.
Condoms are given out for free in many countries to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and protect against STDs.
But sex is a choice.
Periods are not.
So why should women suffer just because of biology?
And so Ufulu came about through a desire to enable women and girls to have safe, hygienic, trouble free periods, where they can continue to work and go to school, without shame, fear or indignity from using cloth rags. Nandi already had a certificate in Health and Hygiene and over the course of many conversations we talked through how we could help the females of Likoma Island (and Malawi) by providing free menstrual cups, via educational workshops.
When I contacted Ruby Cup to find out about purchasing cups in bulk, Amaia and the CEO was incredibly helpful and encouraging and to this day I am so grateful. I flew out with an initial 400 cups with the simple intention of helping the women and girls on Likoma. The initial crowd-funding project evolved into a charity, established in 2019 and is now growing organically.
Ufulu is about women empowering women
Ufulu trains local Malawian women to run cup workshops, thereby empowering them to help the women and girls in their community. We are helping to dispel many myths and taboos surrounding menstruation and showing females that periods are not a shameful thing. Every female has a period and there is no need for us to suffer in silence and discomfort.
The average woman in Likoma earns £20 a month. How much does it cost to have your period in Malawi for a year?
During my time in Malawi I have spent many hours wandering down the toiletry aisles in supermarkets and digging around the shelves in small village shops, finding out what sanitary items cost. The range in Malawi is fairly limited.
You can purchase tampons in the 2 big cities - Lilongwe and Blantyre, but as soon as you go out into rural areas, the choice is pretty limited. There are relatively few supermarkets and most shops will only stock one brand of sanitary pads. These tend to be large bulky pads, the ones with the single strip of tape down the middle, and not the nicer thinner brands like ‘Always’ which are more streamlined and better at absorbing blood.
On average, a pack of 10 pads costs between 80p and £1.50 depending on the shop. Most women in rural Malawi earn between £1-£2 per day. The majority of females we have spoken to can only afford to buy 1 pack of 10 pads per month and they will make each pad last for as long as possible when they wear them. They cannot afford to buy the number that they actually need. They then supplement the pads with rags which don’t cost them anything, but are uncomfortable and cause rashes and in many cases thrush. 90% of the women and girls we have given cups to had permanent nappy rash before using a cup. Permanent nappy rash, every single day - not just when they have their periods. I was horrified when that statistic came up in our data. And after receiving their cups, it drops to just 2%.
Women and girls in rural Africa don’t use the rags because they want to, simply because they cannot afford anything else. So the average woman will use the equivalent of a day’s salary, to purchase pads that will only suffice for 50% of their monthly period.
The impact of Covid-19 has had a further detrimental effect on the ability of women and girls to purchase sanitary items. Tourism accounts for many salaries, both directly and indirectly, within Malawi. With international travel virtually at a standstill, and the subsequent drop in salaries for many people, period poverty is on the increase in Malawi.
This is why Ufulu is determined to give out as many cups, via our educational workshops, as possible. With the long term effects of covid-19 and drop in GDP in countries like Malawi, there is an even greater need to supply free, menstrual cups, to women and girls. They will not complain, it will not be talked about, they will continue to suffer in silence and with dignity. But giving a cup will stop this silent suffering and empower women and girls to be able to go to work and to school, and to just feel free and comfortable when they have their period.
Ufulu is based in Malawi. How culturally acceptable and sustainable is the use of menstrual cups in rural Malawi?
"Women on Likoma like using cups. Before Ufulu arrived, so many of us were using rags. These caused us huge embarrassment and we spent much time washing and drying them. We could not hang them outside as it is shameful, so we had to hide them away. Sometimes they would not dry properly especially in the rainy season, so we had to use them when they were damp and many many of us got rashes. These rashes are uncomfortable and stopped us from working and stopped girls going to school." They had too much shame from their periods.
Cups are great. So many of the women on the island have cups now and they are happy. They can work, and attend to business without fear and shame that their rags will leak or smell. "We have no problems using cups because we are taught in workshops how to use them and take care of them. Cups are easy to clean - you just boil them." We give cup starter packs to all women and girls and these include a tin so that people can boil their cups clean. "Women and girls in Malawi do not want to use rags. They are not nice. They are not comfortable. Cups are hygienic, comfortable and safe. They are easy to use and no one needs to know that we are on our periods. It is not against our culture to use cups. Cups are the way forward for Malawi."
How the workshop has evolved since the pandemic and what have been the challenges and lessons learned to continue with the project
Right from the start, we wanted to ensure that every female attending one of our workshops felt comfortable and safe. Each workshop has no more than 20 females and is usually held at someone’s house or in a village hall, to ensure both privacy and the time and opportunity to ask questions. By keeping the workshop groups small, we ensure that every female leaves with a full understanding of how to use and care for her cup. Each attendee receives one of our cup starter packs, to ensure that she has everything she needs to start using her cup. She also knows her workshop trainer, so if she has any queries or problems in the first few weeks of trying her cup, then her trainer is on hand to help her and answer questions and provide reassurance.
Workshops are run through church or social groups, or simply women from the same village who are already friends. It is all about choice and understanding. If a woman attends a workshop and doesn’t want a cup, that is fine, it is her choice not to take one. However, so far every single female has wanted a cup - we have distributed 1,500 since inception and 99% of females who have received a cup, would recommend using one to her friends.
We have had an incident where one woman was unable to attend a workshop and then spread rumours that cups were dangerous, but this was simply due to fear, misunderstanding and jealousy that she had not received one. When we found out about this, Nandi was able to go to her house, give the woman a cup and explain how to use and care for it. Thankfully this woman is now a huge advocate for cups, but it was an eye opener for us that simply due to feeling left out, this woman felt the need to put others off using cups.
Fear is a strange thing, but we work through our challenges and so far have managed to overcome them, simply by understanding and working with our communities.
The impact of covid-19 has not helped us. On Likoma the workshops have been able to continue, despite the pandemic, as Nandi is embedded within the community and has been able to continue simply by going from village to village, arranging small workshops to ensure that cups are still continuing to be given out. This just highlights to us the importance of the workshop trainer living within her community, and not an outsider.
The impact of coronavirus has also made it harder to contact girls via school, as all schools in Malawi have been shut since April 2020. Luckily, life in Malawi is much more of an outdoor thing. Even if schools are shut, we are able to use the buildings and operate the workshops, adhering to social distancing measures and ensuring that everyone wears a mask, sits apart and washes their hands before starting.
Sadly, with schools being closed down and with kids having more free time, there has also been an increase in unwanted teenage pregnancies within Malawi. The true figures are unknown, but from talking to elders in villages and to the girls themselves, we have identified a need for better education for girls on how their bodies work and the need for safe sex practices.
Ufulu has produced a puberty booklet, in Chichewa, which we distribute within our workshops. This is a simple 12 page booklet, giving simple, basic facts on puberty, periods, feminine hygiene, sanitary products (including cups) and how to avoid falling pregnant - always use a condom.
This has been approved by the local education department and our aim is to continue to produce and provide them, via our workshops, in order that girls better understand their bodies and why they have periods.
We have learned not to assume that girls have had any of this explained to them; and that the benefits of group discussion means that everyone has the chance to talk and ask questions, in a safe and comfortable environment. Many girls are too embarrassed to talk to their mothers or aunts about periods. By providing a forum where they feel safe and comfortable, we are trying to break down the barriers and taboos surrounding menstruation. The knowledge acquired in our workshops and in the classroom is one of the main tools for creating social change.
What is the best way to tackle period poverty and what Ufulu is doing to achieve this?
Local authority figures, parents and teachers are all in agreement that there is a lack of knowledge amongst pubescent girls in Malawi, regarding puberty and sex. Many teenage girls become pregnant without knowing why.
Schools have only just reopened in Malawi and pregnancies are often hidden from the wider community. Over the course of the next few years, we hope to present data showing that the booklet, along with the distribution of cups, helps to ensure that more girls are able to complete their schooling, and finish their education; and that we have helped to promote a decrease in teenage pregnancy.
As with most things in life, education is key. If you teach a girl how her body works and give her the choice of a hygienic and safe sanitary product that enables her to attend school full time, then it is up to her to make the most of her life from then on. Many girls in Malawi will have sex in order to get money to buy pads. Many men in Malawi do not want to use a condom when they have sex. Girls need to be taught that unprotected sex can lead to unwanted pregnancies. By taking control of her body, a girl can dictate her future. But to take control she needs to understand how her body works.
We are not saying that girls should or should not have sex. All we are saying is that if they are going to have sex, then they should be safe and only do it with the fully understanding of the consequences. By educating girls on the menstrual cycle and how pregnancies occur, they can then make an informed choice on when and how.
It is the same with cups. Ufulu isn’t trying to make everyone use a cup. All we want to do is provide females in Malawi with a choice of menstrual products. If they would like a cup, then they can have one, provided they attend a workshop and understand how to use and care for it.
Ufulu means freedom in Chichewa, what does freedom mean to you?
"Provide women and girls with the tools to facilitate menstrual
dignity " -Widge Woolsey
Interview with Widge Woolsey, founder of Ufulu - Ruby Cup partner since 2019.