YOUR TIME Women’s Empowerment Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in the wake of the 2016 American election by three women in Regina, Saskatchewan: Sandy Beug, Lisa Peters, and Lois Vanderhooft. They were inspired by Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, particularly her words to young women urging them not to despair: “And to all the little girls who are watching, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

The three women were able to readily recruit several like-minded friends, and thus a movement was born. A diverse group of individuals enthusiastically agreed to join the board: a lawyer, a veterinarian, a teacher, a school administrator, an accountant, several prominent business women and men, a pharmacist, a physician, a dentist, civil servants, a professional musician, a university student and young mother, a First Nation social worker, and a former cabinet minister and current member of the provincial legislature. They all strongly believe that one way to empower young women is via support and sustainable resources. A particular need was identified: every month young women stay away from school due to a lack of menstrual supplies. The group decided that they would begin by addressing this obstacle to attending school by raising money to provide menstrual supplies, specifically menstrual cups, to young women in two targeted locations.

Our mission is to provide girls and women with the support and sustainable resources to manage menstrual hygiene. Our vision is that, once the lack of a feminine hygiene product no longer prevents girls from attending school more young women will complete their education, realize their potential, and thereby become empowered to contribute to their communities and ultimately rise above poverty.

Bill Gates famously asked how a country that isn’t utilizing half of its talent could possibly hope to succeed. According to the World Bank, women make up 70% of the world’s poor. If over the next fifteen years women’s level of employment were to match that of men, it is estimated that the gross domestic product worldwide would go up 12% on a global scale. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that every year of education that a young woman receives correlates with a decrease in infant mortality by 9.5%; yet, currently two-thirds of the approximately 75 million children denied an education are girls.

UNICEF estimates that one in ten school-aged African girls do not attend school during menstruation because they do not have a feminine product. The World Bank statistics show absences of four days of school every four weeks for menstruating young women. Specifically, girls in Kenya miss 4.9 days of school per month, which adds up to 20% of the school year. Fifty-eight percent of girls in northern Ethiopia have dropped out of school after experiencing teasing and humiliation by classmates when their clothes were stained with blood as they do not have access to sanitary napkins. Girls also avoid standing up to answer teachers’ questions because of leakage, and they avoid writing on the blackboard for fear that others may see bloodstains on their clothes. In addition, when it becomes evident that they are menstruating, young girls are often seen as becoming sexually mature, and are subsequently harassed by male teachers and older boys.

In Kenya, the average daily income of an unskilled labourer is $1.50; the cost of a single pad is $1.00 CDN. Given that cost, it is perhaps not so surprising to learn that in sub-Saharan Africa, there are reports of girls engaging in transactional sex to purchase menstrual supplies. Ten percent of fifteen-year-old rural girls in western Kenya engage in sex for pads, and there are higher numbers of girls under the age of fifteen forced to do this. Others resort to using unhygienic rags and even leaves.

Menstrual cups have only become widely available and used within the last ten years, although they have been available much longer. In 2011, the College of Family Physicians of Canada published a report on the use of menstrual cups compared to tampons: its conclusion was that menstrual cups have the potential to be a sustainable solution to menstrual management with much-reduced environmental effects compared to tampons. The average woman uses one box of tampons or pads every menstrual cycle. This adds up to 11,000 to 16,000 pads or tampons in a lifetime, which equates to 150 pounds of trash. Plastic tampon applicators from sewage outfalls are one of the most common forms of trash on beaches, and flushed pads and tampons are the most common causes of plumbing problems. In contrast, one reusable menstrual cup can last up to ten years.

Menstrual cups can remain in place for ten to twelve hours, thereby obviating the needful toilet facilities. They are chemical free, unlike tampons and pads which have been treated with bleaches and other chemicals that disturb the pH of the vagina. There is little to no risk of toxic shock. They provide overnight protection and are low leakage.

Another advantage to menstrual cups is that they are lightweight and compact. These factors make them easy and affordable to ship, and young women can carry them discretely. They are relatively easy to care for: a rinse after each change, and disinfection in boiling water at the end of the period is all that is required. There are existing successful programs in place in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania, all of which provide menstrual cups to young women.

These programs have proven empowering and have decreased the number of school girls dropping out of school. Alternatives such a reusable menstrual pads were considered; however they necessitate changing pads throughout the day as they are prone to saturation and leakage, and this is difficult because of the lack of toilet facilities in many schools. These pads also need to be washed and are frequently improperly dried thus rendering them unhygienic.

Although we were not able to find statistics for those locales, we were able to personally speak to individuals who were aware of the acute need of young women there. On October 30, 2016, a 13 year-old girl from LaRonge became the sixth girl to take her life in northern Saskatchewan in a thirty day period. Member of Parliament Georgina Jolibois called on the federal government to address immediate health needs in communities in the north: “How much louder do our kids need to be?”.

Sheila Robillard, the Director of Corporate Services for the Athabasca Health Authority, states that a Social Assistant applicant receives $305.00 per month. This meagre amount is expected to cover all expenses except heat, electricity, and rent. Prices for goods in northern communities are astronomical, often two to three times the cost of goods in the rest of the province. The cost of one month supply of tampons or pads at northern stores ranges from $15 to $20. Consequently, many young women miss school or work because they simply can’t afford to buy menstrual supplies.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 28(Right to Education) addresses the right of all children to a primary education, in schools that protect their dignity and that are orderly and well managed. Every month young women are facing embarrassment and indignity due to lack of menstrual supplies. The provision of a menstrual cup is a simple solution: affordable, environmentally friendly, discreet, and reusable. By starting with a pilot project in two communities that we can be directly involved with, and by implementing successful distribution and acceptance of menstrual cups there, we hope to be able to expand our program to more young women in the future. Someone once said of Ginger Rogers: she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Young women are forced to ‘dance backwards’ one week of every month. We hope to remove at least one obstacle to young women’s success and change the world one life at a time.