Menstrual products in Sri Lanka have never been cheap. A study conducted on the taxes imposed on sanitary pads and tampons found that these products are taxed at 42.9%, with border tariffs and the local VAT contributing to the total tax rate. Recently, individuals who experience a menstrual cycle have noticed a significant rise in prices of sanitary pads and tampons, which were already highly taxed.
Low-income households are finding it increasingly more expensive to afford sanitary napkins and alternatives have been introduced to the market. One popular alternative is the cloth pad, which while being a higher one-time spend, will allow the user to reuse the item.
In addition to the cloth pad and also period underwear, there is the menstrual cup. A menstrual cup is a device which is inserted into the vagina during menstruation and will collect menstrual fluid. Typically made of flexible medical-grade silicone, latex, or a thermoplastic isomer, they are funnel-shaped or similar to a bell with a stem or a ring to help grip the item when inserting and removing.
Like period underwear or pads, the cup is an investment, in that it is a higher one-time spend. However, it really does pay off as it is typically said to be durable enough to last you up to a decade. In addition to being super wallet-friendly, it is also eco-friendly, allowing users to contribute far less waste to the ever-accumulating landfills as opposed to the disposable menstrual products.
There are also numerous other benefits to the period cup such as comfort, as the cup is an item which is inserted into the vagina and does not interfere with everyday activities – even those who wish to engage in sports and more active pursuits can do so without any hindrance. Considering how period blood is collected inside the body and does not get exposed to air, there is less possibility of infection and odour. Depending on the size of the cup, it is also able to last a user for a full 12 hours, whereas with tampons and pads one is forced to change them every four to six hours.
However, despite countless benefits, Sri Lankans are hesitant to adopt the period cup. Moreover, because period cups are something of an innovation, there is a lot less knowledge and awareness about the product as it entered the market more recently. As a result, its initial price remains pretty steep and because it is not readily available at typical outlets where one would find menstrual products, there is a serious lack of familiarity.
However, while many of these obstacles can be overcome with the sharing of information and by creating awareness, the social stigma around the menstrual cup remains a major concern.
A majority of Sri Lankans subscribe to the concept of ‘virginity’ and often this idea of virginity is tied to the hymen. The hymen is the thin piece of tissue located at the opening of the vagina, and in many cultures including our own, it is often believed to be proof of one’s ‘virginity’.
With the conservative values of larger Lankan society, sexual intercourse before marriage is frowned upon and the concept of any object that may intrinsically emulate a male penis and could potentially ‘damage’ this piece of tissue is cause for concern.
Considering both the social and medical aspects of using the period cup, Brunch reached out to The Arka Initiative Head of Mentors Dr. Rashmira Balasuriya for her thoughts, specifically regarding any potential medical side effects and also the concerns people have regarding their hymen.
With regard to the menstrual cup and any medical concerns for users, Dr. Balasuriya said: “The period cup is probably one of the best menstrual hygiene products available. In addition, it is also more environmentally friendly as it is reusable and can last anywhere up to 10 years,” she said.
Making note of any potential side effects, she said: “In terms of harmful health-related side effects, there are very few. Vaginal irritation can occur if there isn’t enough lubrication during insertion, but this can be corrected by using a water-based lubricant if needed. Also, Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), (which is very rare and less common than when using tampons), can occur if the menstrual cup is worn for long hours (over 12 hours), as the stagnant menstrual blood becomes a perfect environment for the growth of dangerous bacteria. It is also important to wash your hands with soap/water prior to insertion of the cup to reduce the risk of infections.”
As for the issue of the hymen, the doctor addressed the matter as follows: “The hymen is a remnant membrane surrounding the opening of the vagina. For some, it is a tight layer that bleeds on penetration, and for others, it is a lax membrane that stretches and may not bleed/break during penetration. For some, it can even break during sporting activities (not necessarily penetration).
“Its association with virginity is a social construct, which unfortunately is still very much embedded in Sri Lankan culture. This has affected the use of not only the menstrual cup but also the menstrual tampon, especially in rural areas. However, it is becoming an increasingly popular product in urban areas, especially amongst the youth. In more conservative areas, the menstrual cup has been promoted to married women, especially post-childbirth, as it is more cost-effective in the long run.”
It is interesting to note how in rural areas, the cup is being promoted as it is simply the most cost-effective period product available in the market right now. However, due to the conservative belief system, it is not marketed to the youth. This practice is also adopted by menstrual cup retailers, who often question whether the customer is married or has given birth in order to determine the size of the cup and also to deny purchase to unmarried customers.
Considering the growing popularity of the product and the increased number of vendors, the period cup is getting some airtime on social media. Many content creators have attempted to educate their audiences about its uses.
Senuri Wasalathanthri is one such content creator who has made several informational videos regarding the menstrual cup, her own experiences in using it, and other necessary information that viewers may find useful when attempting to make the switch.
Senuri shared with Brunch the feedback she had received after posting the content regarding the cup and what she had gathered from the perceptions of her audience. “There is definitely a misconception with regard to using the menstrual cup and some negative views. Not so much from girls, but from the majority of males in Sri Lanka, as well as the ageing populace – our parents’ (and grandparents’) generation.”
She shared that she herself faced some challenges when she first attempted to introduce her mother to the use of a period cup. Her mother’s response had been, ‘Why would I use this when I can use a disposable pad?’ However, Senuri had made an effort to explain to her mother the many benefits she had experienced since switching to the cup.
“I explained to her that when work gets hectic, I won’t have the time to change the pad as often as I would like, which can lead to infections. I also especially explained how much discomfort I had to endure when wearing it for a long time, on top of all the other physical discomforts that come with having your period.”
Senuri noted that attitudes change eventually, and as time went on, her mother was able to see how much of a positive impact the cup had on her quality of life. “It lifted my mood. I was feeling far better as I was finally able to get a good night’s rest during the days I had my period, and she was able to see the positive changes.”
Referring to the social stigma attached to using the cup, she asked: “If I put a cup in and my hymen breaks, does that mean I lose my virginity?”
Senuri explained that she had made the video to educate and empower the girls who wanted to listen. “I wanted to explain that virginity and menstrual health are two different things and to discuss how the hymen has no purpose in our body – the simple fact that some women are born without it is an indication of how it serves no real purpose biologically,” she said.
She noted that as this product was able to provide a welcome reprieve from the hectic lives we lead, social opinions don’t really hold much weight as the benefits far outweigh the personal opinions of others. If she were able to help expand the perspectives of at least a select few in some small way through her content, then she would consider it a job well done, Senuri said