Every woman deals with mood swings, cramps, changing and disposing of period products every single month – and it just isn’t easy. While wearing a sanitary pad, it is very difficult to get accustomed to the uncomfortable itch, the inner thigh rashes, the possibility of staining while sitting or lying in certain positions, the typical period smell, or the faint ‘plasticy’ noise that follows with every step.
If you choose to wear tampons, you need to change frequently to ensure you don’t stain. Sometimes you remove your tampon to realize it isn’t full, and you could have waited for a while longer to remove it. On the other hand, there are times when you stain only to realize the tampon is full. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems! That’s why many women prefer to wear a tampon and a pad or panty liner to avoid the possibility of staining.
Are our period products safe for use?
While we have been stuck with these inconvenient period products for decades, did you know that there is no research to attest that sanitary napkins sold in India are safe? In India, sanitary pads are tested as per standards that haven’t been updated since 1980! National Family Health Survey, 2015-2016, estimates that of the 336 million menstruating women in India, about 121 million (roughly 36 percent) women use sanitary napkins, locally or commercially produced, yet we are uncertain about its safety!
These disposable sanitary pads and tampons have filled our landfills. We are now stuck with these stained, stinking, non-biodegradable plastic sanitary pads for hundreds of years. A single non-organic sanitary pad takes up to 250-800 years to decompose or may even never decompose at all.
Recently, Kidskintha interacted with a young social entrepreneur who has innovatively designed a solution for this monumental problem. Ira Guha’s Asan Menstrual cup has proved to be the long-awaited solution to women’s period problems in rural and urban India. Developed in the Harvard Innovation Lab, the Asan Cup is compact, reusable, and made from the highest grade medical silicone.
Ira believes every woman, irrespective of class or income, has a right to safe period products. In her interview with Kidskintha, Ira took us through her inspiring entrepreneurial journey – a venture working effortlessly towards green menstruation. Read on to know more about the very talented Ira Guha and the conception of the Asan Cup.
Hi Ira! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Can you please take us through your journey up until you started Asan Cup?
I grew up in Bangalore, and when I was 18, I went to study Politics and Geography at Cambridge. After that, I worked in consulting for a few years while living in London. However, I have always wanted to be involved in socially beneficial projects, so I left my corporate job to do a Master’s in Public Policy at Harvard in 2017. It was around this time that I started working on Asan.
Why did you target this sector for your entrepreneurial venture?
A few years ago, I came home to Bangalore to visit my parents for the December holidays. Our cook, Mary, had missed out on three to four days of work. When she returned to work, she told me she had a bad rash and a UTI caused by low-quality plastic sanitary pads.
I was completely shocked. So, I began research on period poverty. I learned that 50% of women and girls in developing countries could not afford a safe-period solution. This motivated me to put together a team at Harvard to create a safe and sustainable menstrual product, and we created the Asan cup. We now run a one-for-one donation program, where for every Asan cup we sell, we donate one to a person in rural India who cannot afford period products.
Asan Cup’s design is unique. Could you please take us through the design process that led to the final product?
It took us two years of research and design to create the Asan cup. The aim was to make a high-quality menstrual cup that is much easier to use than the existing products. We began by 3D printing our ideas at the Harvard Innovation Lab and then manufacturing professional prototypes made from the highest quality silicones.
Our cup went through four rounds of user trials and perfected every design element. It is leak-proof and has a unique removal ring, making it much easier to remove. The design is protected by patents/registered rights in the US, UK, Europe, and India.
How did you fund this social initiative?
So far, we have not raised any investment. Prizes and grants funded our entire product development process. To start Asan, I was awarded First Place in the King’s College Entrepreneurship Competition at the University of Cambridge (20,000 GBP prize). I received a Warner Fellowship grant from Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program ($7,000 prize). We launched commercial sales in February 2021 and are now post-revenue. We are raising an equity seed round to fund global expansion in the next three to six months.
What differentiates Asan Cup from the other menstrual cups that are available in the market?
Unfortunately, in India, we have very few regulations regarding what goes into period products. This means that the market for sanitary pads, tampons, and cups is flooded by retailers re-selling generic products they didn’t make themselves. The difference with Asan is that we have engineered our cup from scratch, and we own the intellectual property for our design. As a result, we get to control the quality and have a stand-out product that can’t be copied.
Three features that make our cup different from others are the silicone quality, the unique removal ring, and our incredible illustrated user guide. It teaches you about your body in a friendly and accessible way and provides a user-friendly manual on using the Asan Cup.
In India, menstruation is taboo, and women are unable to talk about it openly. With a social stigma in place, how are you educating women about Asan menstrual cups? What are the various educational channels that you have employed for the same?
In addition to distributing free menstrual cups in rural areas, Asan does a lot of work in menstrual health education and awareness. The first step in any education program is to make sure it is done in local languages. Every recipient of the Asan cup gets an illustrated user guide and in-depth video training in their language of choice. We currently work in Tamil, Kannada, and Hindi.
Secondly, the “educator” must be a trusted person from the local community. We partner with incredible women’s health NGOs, including Belaku Trust, SEWA, and others who have built trusted relationships in villages over decades. We work closely with health workers in these NGOs to deliver our menstrual health education and make sure it is culturally sensitive.
One huge benefit of the Asan cup is that it is extremely discreet. Sanitary pads have to be purchased and disposed of every month, and cloth rags have to hang out to dry. The Asan cup is tiny and can be easily stored in private. There’s nothing to buy, change or dispose of. As one village woman in Kankapura, Karnataka, told us – “I call it the magical cup because no one in the village knows I’m menstruating!”
Where is Asan Cup manufactured? How do you support the Vocal for Local campaign?
We treat our product as a medical device and have partnered with international manufacturers with strict quality certifications. To support Vocal for Local, we source our cotton storage pouch from weavers in Tirupur, and 100% of our packaging is made in India.
Currently, where is Asan Cup available? Do you see demand from overseas markets?
Yes, absolutely. We’re available in India and are launching in the UK and Europe, where there is a lot of demand.
What would be your advice for other women entrepreneurs starting up ventures in the social sector addressing women’s health and hygiene?
My advice would be to have a laser-sharp focus on the problem! Get as close to your customers or beneficiaries as possible. What is the exact challenge they are facing? How can you solve it? Then test your solution on that one person or one community. Use their feedback to perfect it. Once you know that it really works, you can scale.
How challenging has it been to convince women to switch to the Asan cup?
It has been challenging, but over time, we’ve learned and understood what works. We start by asking – what period product are you using at the moment? Are you happy with it? Why or why not? And then we have an honest conversation about how the Asan cup can help them. We strongly believe in freedom of choice; we give people all the facts and information and trust them to choose the best product for their body.
What are the most common concerns that women have about using this product?
The most common concern is, “How on earth can this bell-shaped object fit inside my vagina?!” The cup indeed looks quite big compared to a tampon. However, it’s super flexible and can be folded into a tiny shape, making it very easy to insert. Another fact that we like to remind our customers is that if a whole baby can come out of there, then this small Asan cup can certainly go in.
What precautions need to be taken while inserting this menstrual cup?
Firstly, make sure your cup is clean. Boil it between each period, and wash it thoroughly with running water each time you change it. Secondly, practice a few folds – this blog post demonstrates the C-Fold, Punch-Down Fold, and 7-Fold. Different folds work for different people, and it takes a few tries to find the best one. Lubricating your cup with water can also help glide it in. And thirdly (the most important one) – RELAX! It’s important to be calm when inserting a menstrual cup. Take a few deep breaths, and it will happen with ease.
If not inserted well, what are the problems that can arise?
If you insert your cup incorrectly, it may feel slightly uncomfortable and can leak. This isn’t a problem – take it out and reinsert it. After a few tries, you will become a pro and will insert it perfectly every time.
How do you know your menstrual cup size?
This is a great question. A lot of brands talk about pregnancy and cervix height which can be very confusing. At Asan, we’ve engineered our cup sizes to be primarily based on flow. We have two cups: Light/Medium Flow and Heavy Flow. Use the Light/Medium flow cup if you can wear a pad for 6+ hours. Use the Heavy Flow cup if you leak through pads within 2-6 hours. Simple!
Who should not use a menstrual cup?
Menstrual cups are not suitable for postpartum bleeding. This means that it’s safer to use sanitary pads for the first few months after giving birth (as any insertable product increases the risk of infection). Once your periods come back to normal, you can use cups.
However, you may also struggle with menstrual cups if you have vaginismus. This is a condition where the muscles of your vagina involuntarily tighten when you try to insert something. The great news is that you can overcome this with therapies recommended by a gynecologist. We know of many Asan cup users who have successfully treated vaginismus and now happily use a menstrual cup.
What advice would you give mothers who are concerned about their daughter’s virginity while using menstrual cups?
At Asan, we make a very clear distinction between virginity and hymen. You can only lose your virginity by having sex. On the other hand, the hymen, which is a thin membrane that covers the entrance to the vagina, can be stretched or torn by exercise, being active, or using a menstrual cup. This is a natural process.
We have teenagers as young as 12 who use and love the Asan cup. It enables them to go to school, dance, play sports and be active on their period. That said, we strongly believe that every woman and girl should have a choice of different period products that they can choose from. Please do visit asancup.com/teens, where we have special resources and guidance for teenagers and their mums.
Please shed some light on your social initiative.
50% of women and girls in developing countries cannot afford access to any period product and use old rags, sand, and ash to manage their period. This makes them susceptible to repeated infections and also prevents them from going to school and work.
Asan believes that every woman and girl, irrespective of income, deserves access to high-quality period care. We see it as a fundamental human right. This is why we run a one-for-one donation scheme – we sell the Asan cup globally to those women who can afford it. We donate one for free to a woman or girl in rural India who cannot afford sanitary products for everyone that we sell. We also aim to address the waste management situation in villages, where it is challenging to dispose of plastic pads safely.
To conduct our donations, we partner with highly experienced women’s health NGOs for our donations. In addition to distributing cups, we conduct menstrual health education workshops and train our beneficiaries on using the cup.
One word for Kidskintha
I love what you’re doing at Kidskintha. Becoming a parent involves a huge amount of change and can be a lonely process, especially if your close friends do not have kids.
Kidskintha opens up a whole new world of community and support. It is a safe space to ask questions, connect with others and explore. Three words to describe Kindskintha – creative, inclusive, and safe!