Why we started
UFULU is a UK based charity created by Widge Woolsey in 2018 to provide women and girls in Malawi with free menstrual cups – a sanitary product that is reusable, safe, hygienic and eco-friendly.
UFULU means freedom in Chichewa, the language of Malawi. We are working hard to give women the power to live freely, and we need your help to do it!
Widge has lived and worked in Africa, on and off for the last 30 years.
In 2018 she returned to Malawi and whilst staying with an old friend, met a woman called Nandi Mwakhwawa.
“Before I went back to the UK, I gave Nandi a load of tampons that I didn’t need (I use a cup but always take tampons just in case) and she was so pleased to have them. So then I asked her what she normally used. Nandi looked down at the floor and told me she used rags. I was mortified – I had lived and worked in Africa for many years, and knew how hard it was to get hold of pads or tampons, but it had never occurred to me to wonder what local women used. I felt so western, so privileged, and so incredibly ignorant.“
Widge asked Nandi to explain exactly what most women use. Rather than just talk about it, Nandi took Widge back to her house and showed her the rags that she used. And this is it…a large piece of t-shirt type material, which is then folded over itself until it is the size of a small house brick. Not only are rags like these very uncomfortable, but each rag will also only last a couple of hours before it has to be changed. And then what do you do with it? You can’t put it in your bag…….For women who are working, or away from their homes, the issue arises of where to put their used rag. They are bulky to carry around, are obviously damp and they smell. Then the rag must be washed thoroughly and dried before it can be reused.
Nandi with her torn t-shirt used as a period rag.
This is a big problem in the rainy season (which lasts for 4-5 months). Women are embarrassed to hang their rags outside, and many hide them away inside their houses, where they receive no ventilation or direct sunlight. As a consequence, they do not dry properly and many women end up with nappy rash and bacterial vaginosis. 90% of the women we have spoken to, told us they have permanent nappy rash. And of course, they don’t have the money to buy a product like sudacream, so once again, they suffer in silence.
Another disturbing consequence of period poverty is that many teenage girls in Malawi don’t go to school when they have their periods. They feel embarrassed and worry about smelling, leaks and stains on their clothing. We don’t believe any girl should miss out on her education simply because she is menstruating. The UN states that the easiest way to bring a developing country up in the world rankings is to educate its women. But if girls are missing a week of school every month, that is a quarter of their education – just because they have their periods, and they just never catch up.
“I went back to Likoma later that year and made sure I took Nandi some more tampons. But even then, I knew it wasn’t a realistic or sustainable solution. Likoma, like most of Malawi, has a massive waste issue. Rubbish is not collected – most is burnt in communal open pits. As a woman you are not going to take your used pads to a communal pit. Most people use drop latrines and putting pads down them means they contaminate the soil. The situation was so dire in every way imaginable. So that was when I thought – I need to do something about this.”
“I had been using a cup for a while and had it with me, so I showed it to Nandi and explained how it worked. She was really impressed with it. When I explained that it’s reusable and you just boil it in water to clean it, that there’s no problem with washing or hanging it up to dry like cloth rags or reusable pads, she just smiled at me and said “That is an amazing thing”.
The problem for her was the cost – women in Malawi just can’t afford them. The average woman on Likoma earns £20 a month. I couldn’t bear the thought of her going back to using rags, so I sent Nandi a cup for Christmas and when I phoned her in the New Year, her words were “Thank you so much, you have changed my life”. And that’s when I realised, I needed to do something. Women shouldn’t be suffering in silence when they menstruate. Girls should not be missing out on school just because they have their periods.