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The End of Period Poverty: What If?

Change starts with What If?

NASA reported that the Perseverance rover landed on Mars. Cross-border radical collaboration created a vaccine for COVID-19 in less than one year. And those are just recent headlines. They reminded me though of the power that comes from asking What If? Our ability to create change lies within the will to do it.

I’ve seen it firsthand. By some grand stroke of luck, I have had the opportunity to work on the ground for years in Africa alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellows, social entrepreneurs, and other change makers. They are some of the smartest, boldest, and most courageous people I have ever met with a drive to make a difference for their nations, continent, and world. They don’t ask permission, they ask What If

The ultimate experience for me though has been walking alongside change-maker, Christine Garde-Denning, Founder & CEO of CouldYou?, and one of Forbes magazine’s “Forty over 40” women who are reinventing, disrupting and making an impact globally. I have watched the organization drive innovation in the non-profit sector now for years, with exquisite and authentic African partnership as only it should be. CouldYou?’s boldest act yet is the Women and Girls’ Health Initiative, which transforms the lives of girls and women and aims to tackle Period Poverty. 

Period Poverty is real and it is a global issue.

What is Period Poverty? It means that every month, there are girls and women around the world forced to make a choice between buying a meal or feminine products. Offhand this might not seem like much of an issue, but it creates a tremendous ripple effect for women that introduces physical health risks and prevents them from reaching their potential due to missed educational and professional opportunities and decreased earning potential. Period Poverty is a massive global issue and disproportionately impacts low-income communities – and that includes a surprising number of Americans.  According to the Alliance for Period Products. 1 in 4 menstruators in the US, struggled to afford period products due to lack of income in 2020.

The issue starts at the onset of puberty and forces millions of young women globally into a well-documented downward spiral where girls end up not receiving a secondary education and are therefore more likely to enter into child marriages, experience early pregnancy and malnourishment, and suffer domestic violence and pregnancy complications. I will never forget the moment that I fully grasped the magnitude of this issue. I was in Mozambique sitting around a table discussing a study with researchers. I can still feel my visceral anger as I comprehended all the girls who would never reach their potential – in the face of such a solvable issue. 

Period Poverty matters to all of us. Addressing it is first about human rights.

“Menstruation is a matter of human rights. Good Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) enables women and girls to exercise and enjoy human rights on the basis of equality.”

MAKING THE CASE FOR INVESTING IN MENSTRUAL HEALTH & HYGIENE

It also underpins the achievement of multiple United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Beyond this though, the success of our societies requires that every member can contribute. Imagine how much more we would achieve if we could bring the full human potential to bear on the greatest challenges of our time.  In 2018, a World Bank report showed that girls NOT finishing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.

There is a solution to address Period Poverty.

Period Poverty can be solved. CouldYou?’s transformational program empowers girls and women through the distribution of the CouldYou? menstrual cup, menstrual health education, and a robust, data-driven monitoring and evaluation model. The program was designed with guidance from Professor Penelope A. Phillips-Howard, the world’s leading researcher on menstrual health in rural Africa. In July 2019 the influential medical journal The Lancet, issued a report on menstrual cups. It was an analysis of 43 menstrual cup studies and concluded that “Menstrual cups seem to be an effective and safe alternative to other menstrual products.” The CouldYou? Girls Health program is also orchestrated with key African partnerships including the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano’s Foundation, as well as the Ministries of Education, Culture, Gender and Health in several countries, and certain Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellows focused on shifting the paradigm for addressing poverty.  They also partner with local celebrities like Joselyn Dumas to normalize menstruation, break taboos and introduce the CouldYou? Cup.

Most importantly, the program works. To date it has changed the lives of more than 20,000 girls and women. The foundation of the program is a medical grade silicone menstrual cup manufactured in the United States, the CouldYou? cup, provided to girls and women. Its acceptability rates have been as high as 91%. CouldYou? is currently focusing on 6 countries: Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Mozambique, Liberia and the USA. 

The availability of the cup is keeping girls in school and improving health, but the program takes it a step further. By addressing longstanding socio-cultural restrictions and taboos, and destigmatizing menstruation, it gives dignity back to girls and women. Another important aspect of the program is community uplift. The CouldYou? cup comes with a handmade cotton carrying bag sewn in Africa and all cups distributed in the United States include carrying bags sewn by 10–17 year-old girls who are transitioning out of the sex trade in Uganda. 

Beyond the results, the menstrual cup has also proven to be the most environmentally friendly menstrual solution among all options. It can last for up to 10 years, requires minimal water for washing, (only needs to be boiled for 3-5 minutes after each cycle) and prevents significant waste from being discarded in landfills when compared to solutions such as pads or tampons. Tampons take up to 500 years to breakdown.  If a woman menstruates for 38 years, she only has to throw away 4 menstrual cups compared to 8,000-17,000 tampons, which is a difference of 300 pounds of waste.

Could we end Period Poverty together? 

We can end Period Poverty with awareness, action, collaboration, and the will to do it. Our vision is a world where every girl and woman – regardless of where she was born or what her present circumstances are – can have her menstrual health needs met and flourish with health, dignity, and equality.  CouldYou? is honored to be able to share stories of impact from our Girls Health Initiative from around the world in a monthly op-ed article in Grit Daily so stay tuned.

We can end Period Poverty with awareness, action, collaboration, and the will to do it. Our vision is a world where every girl and woman – regardless of where she was born or what her present circumstances are – can have her menstrual health needs met and flourish with health, dignity, and equality. 

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