Every queen bleeds: normalising menstruation in Ethiopia

Through interactive workshops, Noble Cup teaches girls in Ethiopia about their reproductive systems, cycles and cramps. (Courtesy of Malin Fezehai / Malala Fund)

Through interactive workshops, Noble Cup teaches girls in Ethiopia about their reproductive systems, cycles and cramps. (Courtesy of Malin Fezehai / Malala Fund)

Noble Cup founder Sara Eklund is using menstrual cups to make periods cleaner, safer and easier for girls.

The first time Sara Eklund used a menstrual cup, her initial thought was, “Wow, this is phenomenal.” Menstrual cups — flexible, bell-shaped silicone devices that can be inserted into the vagina to catch period fluid — offer an eco-friendly, time-saving and cost-effective method of menstrual management. For Sara, the potential of the product lay not only in its ability to transform her life but also the lives of girls and women across Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, 25% of girls do not use any menstrual health products during their periods, often due to the high cost of disposable pads. According to Sara, many Ethiopian girls use rags, newspapers and sometimes cow dung as homemade alternatives to pads, which result in discomfort and vaginal infections. Schools often don’t have private bathrooms, running water or trash facilities, making it difficult for girls to wash and dispose of their menstrual products. Because they are unable to manage their periods while at school and must return home, 17% of girls in Ethiopia have reported missing class while on their periods

Sara recognised that menstrual cups could help girls overcome many of these issues. They are less expensive than pads or tampons because they can be reused for five years. They don’t create waste, which is important when adequate garbage disposal facilities are sparse. Unlike pads and tampons, menstrual cups don’t use chemicals and bleaches. And they require less water to clean than cloth rags, a critical concern in countries that faces water shortages, like Ethiopia.

Determined to get menstrual cups in the hands of girls and women across the country, Sara founded Noble Cup, which produces and distributes menstrual cups, educates girls and women about female biology and advocates for menstrual-friendly policies. Through interactive workshops across the country, the organisation teaches women and girls about their reproductive systems, cycles and cramps. They also distribute their own brand of menstrual cups — the first of their kind in Ethiopia.

 
(Courtesy of Noble Cup)

(Courtesy of Noble Cup)

 

With Noble Cup, Sara hopes to change the narrative around menstrual management in Ethiopia. She remembers the stigmas around the subject that she witnessed as a teen growing up in Addis Ababa. “Taboos are the foundation of menstruation education in Ethiopia,” she shares. “Mothers don’t talk about it with their daughters and the Ethiopian government has not put a menstruation education curriculum in place.” Religious traditions prevent some girls from attending school while on their periods — and stop women from sleeping in the same room as their husbands while on their cycles. Popularising the menstrual cup comes with its own set of challenges. Because the product is inserted into the vagina, many women and men worry that it would affect young girls’ virginity, despite the fact that the cup sits well below the hymen.

Through their workshops with girls and women, Noble Cup addresses these concerns and many more. “At first I was afraid to try the Noble Cup, but now it’s made my life easier,” says 24-year-old engineering student Selam. Because the cup can be used for up to 12 hours, it requires less maintenance than other period products and gives girls and women more flexibility. 

After attending the Noble Cup workshops, Ethiopian student Meron realised that it is up to young women like her to challenge social norms and start talking about menstruation. “If we feel uncomfortable asking for products, we need to overcome and break the stigma, otherwise we ingrain the stigma for other girls,” she says.

 
Malala Yousafzai attended a Noble Cup workshop in July 2019. (Courtesy of Malin Fezehai / Malala Fund)

Malala Yousafzai attended a Noble Cup workshop in July 2019. (Courtesy of Malin Fezehai / Malala Fund)

 

In addition to initiating conversations, Noble Cup also advocates for more period-friendly facilities, like installing trash cans in bathroom stalls in workplaces and schools and company policies that protect employees. She also wants to see more scientific research to help women who suffer from painful periods due to fibroids, iron deficiencies or endometriosis. Noble Cup hopes to expand its staff in the future to include doctors who can help treat girls and answer medical questions.

Sara wants her organisation to be accessible for young women — that’s why she works to make their branding cute and fun. Noble Cup’s slogan, “ሁሉም ንግስቶች ይደማሉ,” translates to “every queen bleeds.” She tells the girls she works with: “I am a queen, you are a queen, the girl who’s cleaning up the street is a queen, your mom is a queen, the president [President Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia] is a queen.”

“[Menstruation] is the most natural, normal thing in the world and the unifying thing about it is that every girl is doing it,” Sara shares. She hopes by educating one Ethiopian girl at a time through Noble Cup, she can normalise the conversation around periods: “The most important thing that I want is for the next time a girl is on her period that she’ll tell her girlfriends, ‘I’m cramping hard’ and break the silence and stigma around menstruation just a bit.”


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About the author

Omolara Uthman is a Malala Fund editorial intern and student at Johns Hopkins University. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing and food photography.