SINGAPORE • In remote parts of Nepal, young girls dread growing up.
During their periods each month, girls and women are banished into menstrual huts, often located at the fringe of villages. Those who manage to remain in their communities are often too embarrassed to dry out their menstrual rag cloths after washing, thereby risking infection.
In India, over 113 million adolescent girls are at risk of dropping out of school because of the stigma surrounding menstrual health, according to the World Bank.
Managing menstruation is a huge problem across the globe. Over 800 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 are menstruating on any given day, studies show. Yet, a significant proportion have little or no access to feminine hygiene sanitation during their periods.
Championing a change in the way women face menstruation issues is feminine hygiene products company Freedom Cups.
The social start-up, founded by three Singaporean sisters, distributes menstrual cups around the world to women in need and sells them to those who can afford them.
Price of a Freedom Cups device. For every cup sold, one is given away. Since 2015, 3,000 cups have been distributed to underprivileged women around the world.
The bell-shaped cups can be fitted under the cervix, like a tampon, where they sit and collect menstrual blood for up to 12 hours. But unlike tampons and pads, the cups can be washed and cleaned for reuse.
Co-founder Vanessa Paranjothy, 29, said the Freedom Cups device "helps women in the First World to reduce waste. It also helps women living in the Third World who cannot afford sanitary products".
She added: "Periods are a problem on so many fronts. They are huge contributors to waste, keeping girls from school, earning women less money. We want to eradicate the period problem."
USING IT SAFELY
Toxic shock syndrome is linked to people leaving tampons and menstrual cups in for too long. The main thing is to remember to remove them.
DR CHRIS CHONG, a gynaecologist at Gleneagles Medical Centre. For any menstrual cup to work safely, it must not cause an allergic reaction, and the user must be able to remove it when necessary, he emphasised.
Together with her sisters - Joanne, 26, and Rebecca, 21 - she created Freedom Cups.
Their cause has attracted global attention.
Last year, the sisters made the Forbes 30 Under-30 Asia list, which recognises 30 outstanding individuals in various fields - from social entrepreneurship to sports.
And in April, Vanessa won the Commonwealth Youth Award for Asia, which recognises young people from the Commonwealth whose innovative projects have had a significant impact on their communities.
Vanessa said the cups have been well received, despite initial apprehension.
"When we first went to a village in the Philippines, the village head told us to distribute the cups only to married women," she said. "But after the women tried them, they came back to get more for their daughters."
Made of medical-grade silicone, each cup lasts up to 10 years. On average, a woman uses about 5,000 disposable sanitary products in the same time span, said Vanessa. "This makes it the more economical and eco-friendly option."
The fact that the cups can be used for up to 12 hours means they last much longer than a pad or tampon, making them ideal for women living in areas with no toilets, electricity or running water, said Vanessa.
Doctors, however, advise users to take precautions against infection.
Dr Chris Chong, a gynaecologist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said that for any menstrual cup to work safely, it must not cause an allergic reaction, and the user must be able to remove it when necessary.
"Toxic shock syndrome is linked to people leaving tampons and menstrual cups in for too long," he said. "The main thing is to remember to remove them."
The sisters have redesigned the cups to be smaller, to suit women who are first-timers with "anything invasive".
Freedom Cups gives away one menstrual cup for every one it sells. The cups, which retail for $35 each, are available on Freedom Cups' website and through retailers in Singapore.
Undergraduate Yin Pei Shan, 22, who has been using the cup for three years, said she was afraid initially to switch from pads and tampons.
"But using it has made my life so convenient; now I can swim and do water sports. This is a cause that is also giving back to women in need, so I am happy to be supporting them, " she added.
Since 2015, the sisters have distributed 3,000 cups to underprivileged women around the world. They have embarked on 16 projects in seven countries - Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, India, Nepal and Nigeria - to distribute the cups to the needy and spread the message of menstrual health.
But for the trio, the work has only just begun. They hope to reach out to more women, saying that their greatest satisfaction comes from seeing a change in the lives of those they have helped.