Meet The Social Entrepreneur Destigmatising Periods
Through her startup Freedom Cups, social entrepreneur Vanessa Paranjothy is helping girls and women around the world understand their bodies better
In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.
Every month, 1.8 billion people menstruate. And while menstruation is a natural process of life, many still find it difficult to talk about openly. The stigma and shame that some experience in relation to their periods are a result of social and cultural taboos, such as women being seen as "dirty" or "impure" when they’re bleeding or menstruation being perceived as a matter to be dealt with discreetly.
According to the United Nations, “[these] persistent harmful socio-cultural norms, stigma, misconceptions and taboos around menstruation continue to lead to exclusion and discrimination of women and girls.” In some countries, customs allow menstruating girls and women to be confined or banished from public sight, which may put them at greater risk of falling ill or getting attacked by others.
“The patriarchal control exerted to constrain women’s behaviour and mobility during menstruation undermines their agency and equality,” says the UN. “When combined with the stigma and shame that women and girls are made to feel during that time, it is truly disempowering.”
In other countries, periods are causing girls and women to be absent from school or work due to lack of access to proper sanitary products or facilities.
The Singapore-based social entrepreneur is the co-founder of Freedom Cups, through which she hopes to help end period shaming—the idea that girls and women are made to feel embarrassed simply because they bleed—and period poverty, which is a global issue of not being able to access clean and safe sanitary products.
She runs the social enterprise with her sisters Joanne and Rebecca, selling reusable, medical-grade silicone menstrual cups that can last up to 10 years. At the same time, Freedom Cups’ buy-one-give-one business model enables it to provide a menstrual cup to a less privileged girl or woman for every one sold.
Since it started in 2015, Freedom Cups has reached girls and women in nine countries across Asia and Africa. It has completed some 30 projects in the likes of Uganda, Nepal, India and the Philippines, where it distributed menstrual cups to those who need and want them. It often educates the communities about periods, period care and their bodies as well.
In these six years, Paranjothy, who is an Obama Foundation Scholar and one of 12 social changemakers around the world to be selected to attend a year-long leadership development programme at Columbia University in 2018, has also spoken to several heads of states about the world’s period problem. This includes Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, who she conversed with when they were both in London for the 2018 Commonwealth Youth Awards—Paranjothy was there to receive the award as the overall winner for Asia.
“Talking about periods can be very empowering,” says Paranjothy. “Women make up nearly half of the world’s population and we are the only ones who are able to bear children. Whether you’re religious or not, I think this is a miracle, just the fact that we’re able to make life. And it all stems from periods. Periods are a complete necessity to a healthy body, but we don’t frame it that way. The framing now is how to keep periods as discreet as possible.”
With much already achieved, Paranjothy says her focus from here is to scale the business and its social impact further. In addition to widening its global network of NGO partners to reach more underprivileged people who menstruate, Freedom Cups is also looking into ways to enable communities to be self-sufficient in addressing their period issues.
In her own words, Paranjothy shares more about the impact and growth of Freedom Cups and what’s next for the startup.
The period problem is a Goliath, age-old, multifaceted and universal one. It ranges from inadequate education about periods to unnecessary taxes on and lack of access to period products, to managing sanitary product waste. And it impacts women at some level in most places around the world.
Periods in a place like Singapore are a hassle. We may skip out on a beach outing or have to postpone that bikini wax. But by and large, we have access to affordable period care products. What we don’t have is sufficient education around the topic—many who we have worked with have admitted to knowing too little about our bodies and periods.
We’ve worked with women in over nine countries across Asia and Africa. In the Philippines, we work with sugarcane plantation workers, who often miss at least five to seven days of work during the course of their monthly bleeds because there are no toilets out in the fields where they can change themselves out or clean themselves up.
In the US, we are working with marginalised women in Atlanta, Georgia who have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic and are struggling to afford period products.
In Nepal, we worked with girls from a boarding school who had an additional financial burden of purchasing disposable sanitary products because they were too embarrassed to hang the cloths they usually use for their monthly bleeds in the open where it’s a co-ed environment.
In India, we are working with a village whose women are able to purchase subsidised disposable sanitary products, but whose only proper means of disposal is to throw their used pads into a small lake at the back of their village. They have reported that the lake is hard to go near because of the stench.
We want to help communities not yet supported by NGOs or local social organisations. In order to find out about them, we talk to a lot of different people. We’ve asked domestic helpers in Singapore to tell us about their villages back home and connect us with people over there. One of our very first projects came about thanks to a Filipino woman we met in Singapore, who told us that her village didn’t even have running water or electricity.
Cultivating relationships with the communities we work with is important to us. We have the choice of opting in and out of their lives; we get to opt into a zero-electricity situation and we get to opt out of it and come back to our country. So I think it's important to treat those we help with the dignity and respect that they deserve, as opposed to entering into their lives and thinking that we are some kind of saviour. We prefer to not see them as beneficiaries, but as people we can learn from.
When Freedom Cups first started, we were very ambitious about our mission and we couldn’t understand when women didn’t want to use our product. But as we experienced more and matured over time, we realised that change takes time. With menstrual cups, it’s a personal choice to use them or not, and while it might make sense on paper, not everyone might be keen on them—and we know now that that’s okay.
We are piloting a hub-and-spoke model in Uganda to see if we can make individual countries self-sufficient in handling their period problems. How it works is that we get women who can afford menstrual cups to buy them in order to subsidise free period products for others in their country who can't afford them.
We’ve been bootstrapping Freedom Cups since the beginning because we see this as an experiment to test if women would warm up to period cups. This way, we know we wouldn’t be wasting anybody else’s time and resources. Now, we’re at the stage where we want to scale up, but how do we do it responsibly?
We’re already profitable and comfortable where we’re at, and anyone we bring on board has to have the right mentality and network to help us grow, as opposed to simply coming to us with money. Money is cheap. What I think is more important are the people behind the money, people who understand our vision, because where our hearts really lie is the social impact that we have.
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