Q&A: Julie Weigaard Kjær on Menstruation and Empowerment

In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day, CEO and co-founder of Ruby Cup Julie Weigaard Kjær took some time to chat with Ms. about the award winning social business which aims to create social change.

Tell us about Menstrual Hygiene Day.

Menstrual Hygiene Day, or Menstrual Health Day or just MH Day as we prefer to call it, was initiated by WASH United in 2013 – a German-based NGO. The idea came about because they realized that there was a need for an advocacy platform around menstrual hygiene management (MHM), one that would raise awareness and bring together organizations from the diverse sectors working in the area. They decided to float the idea by some of their trusted partners, including WaterAid, ZanaAfrica and of course, we at Ruby Cup, to see if it would resonate with our work. We all loved it. MH Day was born.

Every MH Day has a new theme. This year it is “Education about menstruation changes everything.” Menstrual May is marked by events and activities held all around the world, including marches, workshops and product launches, and social media is abuzz with hashtags like #MenstruationMatters, #PeriodPositive and #MenstrualMovement.

One of the women who helped initiate the success of MH Day, Danielle Keiser, has been passionately working to continue this great work beyond just a day. She’s launching the Menstrual Health Hub, a global hub for the exchange of research, education, policy and innovation around the topic. The idea is really to get all the things happening in the period movement into one place. We’re excited to be part of the Founding Circle of the MH Hub and look forward to lots of bloody taboo-breaking in the future.

Menstrual hygiene products are not available to every woman or girl. How do you think this affects their education?

If you bleed and you have nothing to stop the blood with, you can’t go about any of your daily routines, including your school education, which is crucial for girls in order to improve their possibilities in life. Through our work in East Africa with Ruby Cup, we’ve heard countless of stories of desperate girls or women using unsafe methods because they simply have no other choice. Rags, bark and feathers. Girls have told us that they steal their father’s socks or pull out pieces of their mattress. We’ve heard a story of a woman using cooking flour – she puts it in a tin can and sits there the whole day. Having no choice but to use unsafe methods takes away your dignity. You feel ashamed and either you stay home and miss out on school completely or you go to school but you can’t concentrate because you’re constantly scared of leaking.  UNESCO estimates that 1 in 10 girls in Africa do not go to school while menstruating. The World Bank highlights absences of approximately four days every four weeks. Menstruation without access to safe menstrual products deeply affects a girl’s chance of getting an education and as a result also her progress further in life.

Can you talk about a few of your Ruby Cup partnerships and what they do and how they help women and girls?

Without our amazing partners, we wouldn’t be where we are today. It’s through joint efforts and shared experiences that we’ve been able to reach 24,000 girls to date and constantly learn and improve our programs.

We’ve been working with three organizations especially for a long time: Womena, a Danish NGO working in Uganda – excellent researchers and pioneers in menstrual cup interventions. I’d recommend them to anyone needing consultancy on designing a menstrual cup intervention programme. Golden Girls Foundation, a community-based organisation in Western Kenya. They have successfully implemented a Mentorship model, where women of status in each area are connected as ongoing supporters to each school, where girls receive a Ruby Cup. This has resulted invaluable in achieving ongoing high adoption rates. Femme International, Canadian NGO working in both Kenya and Tanzania. They have a power focus on education about menstruation as empowerment and offer both Ruby Cups and washable cloth pads as part of their programmes.

How have the education programs that Ruby Cup helped establish, improved the lives of girls?

To answer that question, I’d like to share this poem we received as feedback from a girl in a school for disabled children in Western Kenya. For me it says it all:

My U-turn Friend:

We fly high
free and in pride
we walk with no worry
for you laid it down
my Ruby friend
Long before
the red moon was nightmare
boycot our school was the system
whenever the season came
the season of shame to the girlchild
It was so cold
harsh with no mood
the winters frozen snow
that came without a warning
the sudden hardship in the queen’s chamber
But on that chosen day
the little saviour came
and took away all the worry
a single light
brought a smile to the faces of many young girls
Thank you my Ruby friend
for giving me the difference
with you by my side
I know I will always smile
for you rescued my sinking joy

To sum up, all the feedback we’ve received from the users, the overarching words are freedom and ownership. Freedom, because the users can attend school, play, do sports also when they’re on their period. Freedom, because a girl frees up a lot of space in her psyche that before was used on worrying and feeling ashamed. Ownership, because the Ruby Cup programs always include sound education about the female anatomy and menstrual care. This empowers the recipients and enables them to make informed decisions about their bodies. Ownership, because now they own a product that they can reuse every month. They no longer have to ask for money to buy pads or use unsafe methods.  

Tell me more about these education programs.

As a general term, we call them Ruby Cup donation programs, especially when we do distributions with our own local trainers in Kenya. But through our work with partners, the programs can have different names: Mentorship Program, Feminine Health Empowerment Program, Menstrual Cup Intervention program. Similar for all programs is the focus on delivering sound education to girls and women about their reproductive health, female anatomy, menstrual care and cup usage. Ruby Cup is a healthy and sustainable period product but it does not create a long-term impact on a user’s life in itself. The educational component is crucial to give a girl a sense of control and ownership of her own body.

Do you think sexual health, reproductive health and self-confidence is being taught enough? 

No. Good quality education in this area is in urgent need of improvement. Of course the level differs enormously across the globe: I’m from Denmark, the first country to release porn and promote red noses as humor against AIDS. My teacher did put a condom on a banana in front of the class (girls and boys together) and gave us the details with the only interference being a little giggling. But we were not encouraged to ask questions or create a dialogue. In Kenya, it is a mandatory part of the educational curriculum but it’s rarely done properly. The girls might be told nothing or simply be told: When you get your period, you can have kids – not a word about that they’ll actually start bleeding. Promoting abstinence only is also part of silencing an open dialogue. Abstinence is recommendable and the safest method towards avoiding STIs and pregnancies but it has to be a part of a more holistic education that promotes options and choice. The teachings have to fit reality and abstinence is not it. Many of the girls receiving Ruby Cups are already sexually active, so telling them to abstain is not going to help them make informed choices when they engage in sex.

What are some ways Ruby Cup helps empower women and girls?

We believe that information is power. We also focus a lot on sustained support after the distributions of Ruby Cup. It takes time to learn to use a menstrual cup, so when you get around to the time of your period, you might not remember everything you were taught in the first educational workshop. It’s crucial for a beginner to have someone to ask for help once you start using the cup. If no one is around, you might be too nervous and never give it a try. From our programs we know that sustained support yields continued adoption rates of 80 to 90 percent versus sometimes only 30 percent uptake if there is no support and that means the cups go to waste. It’s a requirement from our side that any partner conducting cup programs have resources for sustained follow up in place. The impact and empowerment has to be sustainable and long-term – this is fundamental to us.

Have you received feedback from women and girls who have been helped through Ruby cup? What was the most memorable?

A poem from a girl saying thank you to us once brought tears to my eyes. Another girl once told me in an educational workshop that she menstruated for two years without knowing what was happening to her body. She thought she was going to die just because she lacked information. Another girl once told us that after receiving Ruby Cup, she no longer had to ask her “boyfriend” for money to buy pads. What this means very often is that the girl will go to older men and engage in transactional sex to get money to buy pads. This can lead to the girl ending up with HIV or an unwanted pregnancy – all a vicious circle that education and safe products can break for the better.

Is there anything else you would like to add or let us know about surrounding Menstrual Health Month?

A call to action to everyone, who would like to support a girl in need with education and a Ruby Cup: To celebrate Menstrual Health Day and Month, we are doubling our efforts with the Buy One Give One program in May only: This means that for every Ruby Cup you buy, we will donate two Ruby Cups to girls in need. If you’re not a menstruator or do not need a cup, you can also simply donate a Ruby Cup in our online shop. 1 donation purchase means 2 cups given to girls in need. The #Buy1Give2 campaign runs until May 31st.

#Buy1Give2 Menstrual Health Day 2017

2 out of 3 girls in Kenya can't afford menstrual products when they need them. In May, for every Ruby Cup you buy, two will be donated to girls in need. This is our 2017 Menstrual Health Campaign. We want to double our efforts and raise awareness about how the simple act of giving a menstrual cup can change a girls' future. Join in and take action: http://rubycup.com/menstrual-health-day-2017/Share this video to make this issue heard!#Buy1Give1 #MenstruationMatters #MHDay

Posted by Ruby Cup on Monday, May 1, 2017

And a thank you, thank you, thank you! To everyone who’s already supported the campaign.

About

Meliss Arteaga studied at California State University Northridge and has a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minor in gender and women studies.