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Reusable period products: how can uptake be improved?

Jess Molyneux has been working with the Intellectual Forum on the intersection between sustainable period provision and period poverty. 

We caught up with Jess about her internship:

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently writing an article for a medical journal, looking at what healthcare providers and policy makers can do to promote uptake of reusable period products, in sensitive and sustainable ways, in low-income contexts.

What are your longer term goals?

The journal article is informed by my reading for a systematic review and thematic analysis of the literature on the feasibility of sustainable period products in low-income contexts. I’m aiming to draw out the data on uptake and acceptability. This means looking at how many participants in a given intervention ended up using the products provided, and how many found them acceptable in terms of comfort, efficacy, and cultural appropriateness. I’m also looking at the barriers to uptake and acceptability across different contexts, with a view to providing recommendations on overcoming those barriers at a policy and community level.

Do you have any interesting findings so far?

One standout result from most studies is the importance of a structured and ongoing educational intervention alongside provision of products. Peer support is just as important as expert guidance, and can really bolster the effectiveness of product distribution. Lots of studies find “championing” to have a big impact. This is when product users within the community support others to get used to new technologies: this is particularly important with insertive reusables like menstrual cups. Championing has worked well in school contexts where older girls are known users who can provide advice and dispel fears. It’s great to see this empirically verified across contexts, because it’s something which I’ve found in my own experience using a cup, and in uptake of the Jesus College Student Union’s OrganiCup provision. 

Another interesting finding has been the occasional difficulty of introducing reusable pads because of the perception of commercial disposables as the modern gold standard. Thinking about the history of menstrual hygiene management, reusable products have been the norm for hundreds of years, and it is only in the 20th century that disposable products took over. Many people who menstruate in lower-income settings continue to use traditional reusable methods (such as found cloth or multiple pairs of underwear) when commercial disposables are not readily available or affordable. Coupled with unstable access to clean water and soap, this means that disposable products are often felt to be a much better option when they can be accessed. Commercial reusables can then be met with scepticism and uncertainty, or are perceived as a less hygienic, less convenient step backwards. But limited access to disposable pads often leads to their being used for longer periods of time than is safe, whereas a menstrual cup can be used hygienically with fewer resources. There’s important work to be done, then, to adapt interventions to entrenched user preferences, especially in contexts where the ability to use different products safely is complexly interlinked with available water and sanitation facilities. 

What are you finding most rewarding?

Reading about successful menstrual health management interventions has been really enjoyable, because seeing testimonies about how much a menstrual cup, for example, has changed people’s lives reminds me of the continuing importance of work in this field and the amazing resourcefulness of so many users in resource-poor settings. The fantastic work of WoMena in Denmark and Uganda has been especially inspiring. I also love one study’s conclusion that a “basket approach”, which prioritises the agency of users themselves to choose what works best for them in their context, is best.

What are you finding most challenging?

I’m learning a lot about new research methods (having come from an English undergraduate background), which is often difficult to get to grips with, especially when data is involved! It’s been interesting but challenging to decide on the best processes to investigate the things I’m interested in.

What's next for you?

Next year I will be going to Trinity Hall College to do an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies. My MPhil research will focus on the role of gender performance in the experience of displacement and in navigating European asylum systems.