Did you know that 70% of women across the globe do not have access to proper hygiene when they get their period? They do not have access to a toilet or running water, and many still use leaves, bark or old scraps of cloth to quell the bleeding!
The remaining 30% of women who do have access to pads and tampons face discomfort, leaks, stains, limited mobility and high expenses while creating a heap of non-biodegradable waste.
Why is something that is a monthly occurrence in almost every woman’s life still a taboo, even in a society as progressive as ours?
These hard truths and the devastating environmental impact of plastics contained in sanitary pads are what inspired the Paranjothy sisters to invent Freedom Cups. The sisters have made it their mission not only to sell a product that is of superior quality and safer for women to use, but to use their platform to support and educate women in underprivileged areas.
A Freedom Cup can last up to 15 years, and for every Freedom Cup sold, one is given free to a woman in need.
So what is a “Freedom Cup”? It is a small green flexible cup made of medical-grade silicone. It is inserted in a way quite similar to a tampon and sits at the base of the cervix to collect menstrual fluid.
Since its launch in 2015, Freedom Cups has catapulted sisters Vanessa, Joanne and Rebecca Paranjothy into the limelight. In addition to making the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list in 2017, the team got the chance to speak to Prince Harry, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Prince Charles about their project that is making waves.
In their home country of Singapore, the girls have spoken about the importance of sanitation and the environmental impact of periods on live TV and radio with CBS-ABN, Channel News Asia, and Kiss 92 FM. In 2017, they were nominated for the Youth Social Enterprise of the Year and had the opportunity to meet Mdm. Halimah Yacob.
Last March 2018 the Paranjothy sisters represented Singapore at the ASEAN Young Leaders Roundtable with former US president Barack Obama. Also in 2018, they represented Asia and were the regional winners of the Commonwealth Youth Awards for Excellence in Development Work in London at the Commonwealth Youth Forum.
It is very encouraging to see that Freedoms Cups is getting the buzz it deserves for the impact it is making. However, Vanessa says that they still have a long way to go in educating women about something as fundamental as their understanding of how their bodies work.
The Paranjothy sisters have made it their mission to do this, and they certainly have their work cut out for them. After all, changing age-old mindsets and archaic beliefs cannot be an easy task.
We wanted to get a glimpse into the Freedom Cups team’s progressive mindset and find out how they plan on changing the beliefs of millions of women around the globe.
When the Paranjothy sisters embarked on their project, the first thing they did was conduct a study on women in the third world, with a particular focus on menstruation.
Vanessa believes that being data-driven is of utmost importance when trying to educate a big audience and create a mind shift. “If you Google ‘periods’ right now, there's no literature about the statistics surrounding it, and we had to prove to people that periods are a problem,” she discusses.
The data they received through their study shed much light on many aspects of rural women’s’ lives, including negating some assumptions the world has about them.
“There are lots of assumptions that people in the third world are traditional, poor and unhappy. During our first project, we realised this wasn't true. We gave them a happiness scale and more than 90% of them rated of their lives above 8/10. These are women with no electricity or running water,” Vanessa clarified.
We were intrigued to know why the Paranjothy sisters chose menstrual cups as a business idea, apart from the social impact of it. “Because they are the best sanitary option that exists for the body, wallet, and planet!” Vanessa pointed out succinctly.
She continued, “It is a small cup made of medical-grade silicone, is folded, inserted into the body, and collects menstrual fluid. Ten to 12 hours later it is removed, washed with soap and water, and re-inserted. It is sanitary, economical, eco-friendly, non-toxic and leak-free. The best part is one cup can be used for several years.”
A hefty amount of research and preparation has gone into the Paranjothy sisters' quest to educate their audience about Freedom Cups. After all, it's not just about educating an audience about a new product but re-educating them about a subject that is unfortunately still a taboo in society.
“Women don’t talk about it, and men don’t know anything about it, so periods are still a problem in the 21st century, even though we’ve put men on the moon and computers in our pockets. The reason is lack of education about women’s bodies, various religious beliefs, and just ignorance,” Vanessa explains.
Freedom Cups works on a unique model where for every cup purchased, one is donated to the underprivileged. Apart from the concern that many women in rural areas have unsanitary periods, the sisters also learnt that there were other issues they were hidden beneath the surface.
In rural parts of some countries, up to 23% of young girls drop out of school when they get their first period and women who work in fields have to take time off due to their periods. The socio-economic impact of this, as you can imagine, is enormous.
There are also health concerns such as urinary tract infections and yeast infections—which are consequences of unsanitary periods. Sadly, this is a fact many women are ignorant about.
These women are sex workers, indebted labourers, nomadic tribe-women and nuns, with some being displaced and others victims of domestic abuse. “We learnt all of this along the way, and that’s when we realised that our mission is way bigger than us,” Vanessa shares. “We are seeing a decrease in school drop-out rates, an increase in household income, a decrease in the rates of urinary tract infections and other health issues, and an increase in their overall standard of living.”
Vanessa adds that the reason they started their mission was to get Freedom Cups to the bottom billion women who had very unsanitary periods. However, along the way, they realised that the “by-products” of trying to help these women in the third world are economic sustainability and environmental protection.
“In Singapore alone, we have saved the dustbin scores pads and tampons,” explains Vanessa.
One of the most significant challenges Freedom Cups faces is the lack of education surrounding periods. Vanessa points out, “As a startup, we find that we not only have to sell our Freedom Cups but we have to educate women about the very basics of how their bodies work.”
Therefore, the sisters invest a significant amount of time educating not only women from rural communities but urbanites as well. “Women in the first world are harder to convince,” Vanessa shares. “They can afford what they are comfortable with, and don’t see the waste they produce enough to want to make the swap so readily.”
She adds that women in the third world have fewer options to consider. Top if off with the prospect of having full mobility, less downtime, more income, and lower risk of infections, their choice is then a pretty easy one to make.
The Freedom Cups team uses two main approaches to address their audience: education and re-education. “It's reteaching. We’re getting people to relearn everything they've been taught before about their bodies,” shares Vanessa.
As part of their aim to educate, the team does a lot of talks and outreach projects at corporations and universities.
“We have been to companies like AXA, Shell and UBS, as well as almost all the polytechnics and universities. We try to get the word out and educate women that periods are a huge burden on the earth and people don't realise that because they have not been taught that,” Vanessa points out, adding that pads last up to five to eight hundred years before breaking down into smaller bits of plastic.
“The pad that you use for three hours lasts forever, essentially,” she says pointedly.
However frustrating it is, Vanessa understands that these issues won’t disappear overnight. “These are the things we're trying to do within our capacity to get women to change their habits. We are very adamant about educating them to be more informed about their choices. That's why we do many outreach projects,” she adds.
It is apparent that Vanessa is passionate about education around the subject of menstruation. In fact, she feels that the lack of knowledge about the issue is a massive injustice to women. As such, they jumped at the opportunities to meet with leaders who could affect change on the ground.
Former US president Barack Obama, Prince Harry, Prince Charles and our very own Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong and President Mdm Halimah Yacob are some of them. “It's more of alerting them that there's a problem we are facing and we have a ready solution,” Vanessa reveals.
The sisters couldn’t have chosen a more complex product to market! Talking about their marketing strategy, Vanessa points out, “It's not such a simple product to market, like mascara, for example. It's very, very intimate and personal.”
Therefore, they are very cautious about using trending marketing strategies such as influencer and social media marketing. Currently, Freedom Cups are sold online and accompanied by much information for buyers to read.
Vanessa reminds us that this isn’t a product that you can buy on an impulse hoping to use it later. So, you can say that the education they provide is also a form of marketing for the product.
As for the team’s plans, they aim to get Freedom Cups out to many, many more women by moving into bigger markets such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand shortly.
There’s way more to Freedom Cups than being just a successful player in the startup scene. The Paranjothy sisters are going to continue to make waves with the sheer enormity of the task they have taken on, and we can’t wait to see what’s next for them!
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