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W? Collective’s Olie Body on social enterprise, ending period poverty and talking about menstruation (listen)

Let’s talk about periods.

Feeling squeamish? That’s part of the problem, says Olie Body, founder of W? Collective, a Wellington-based social enterprise making a difference by addressing the issue of period poverty.

As Body explains, she started W? Collective in June 2017 after a survey of 1,000 students in Wellington showed that one-third of people menstruating had to miss class because they did not have access to menstrual products. “That survey blew us away. We had no idea the scale of the problem.” She describes period poverty as a result of socio-economic issues like financial hardship, the housing shortage and inflation.

Photo credit: Elise Creative

That’s where W? Collective comes in. For every W? cup purchased for $49, the cost to a student will be subsidised to $15.

With 100 percent medical grade silicone, an ethical and zero-waste production facility and a lifespan of 10 years, Body says a W? Cup is – over its lifespan – cheaper than one-time-use disposable menstrual products, better for the environment, and better for bodies since there isn’t the risk of toxic shock syndrome. As the W? Collective website says: “This cup is the real bloody deal.”

Photo credit: Elise Creative

That’s important, because Body offers this mind-boggling statistic: each year, New Zealanders send 357 million disposable tampons and pads to landfills. Three. Hundred. And. Fifty. Seven. Million. Oh, and these can take up to 500 years to decompose due to the chemicals and plastics in them.

Body says that, to date, W? Collective has sold 300 cups, saving students $26,000 in menstrual costs per year and preventing 72,000 disposable products from entering landfills in 2018. She says being able to help students not miss class or struggle to pay the rent or feed themselves because of period poverty is much more important than making money. “Our partnerships with Victoria and Massey Universities in Wellington, Massey University campuses in Palmerston North and Albany, and Lincoln University in Canterbury have been key to accessing students directly through associations and campus health services.”

W? Collective founder Olie Body. Photo credit: Elise Creative

 Later this year, W? Collective are looking to partner with other organisations to bring subsidised cups to a range of vulnerable groups and communities around the country. “It’s a win-win for our people and our environment,” says Body, who in 2014 lived in India and helped establish initial training for women in rural West Bengal to make their own menstrual products.

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FAST FACTS: PERIOD POVERTY AND W? COLLECTIVE

From a survey of 1,000 students and recent postgrads:

  • One out of three skipped class because of a lack of access to menstrual products.
  • Half of respondents blocked their period for financial reasons alone.
  • Three-quarters spent less on food because of the cost of menstrual products.

On waste:

  • Each year, New Zealanders send 357 million disposable tampons and pads to landfills. 
  • These can take up to 500 years to decompose due to the chemicals and plastics.

W? Collective’s impact so far:

  • Already saved students $26,000 and prevented 72,000 menstrual products from going to landfill.

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W? Collective also prides itself on being a very inclusive enterprise – and stresses the importance of inclusion when discussing periods. “You don’t have to identify as female in order to have a pair of ovaries. Likewise, not all females menstruate. For that reason, we steer clear of W? Collective being gender based… it’s ovary based instead!”

But still feeling squeamish, dear reader? Don’t. “Half the planet menstruates. In fact, if it wasn’t for that, not even Auntie Agnes would be able to whisper away the subject, as she wouldn’t be born. We have found that the more we all talk about it, the more normalised periods become. Pete from our office can tell you all about that.

“We prefer the term ‘menstrual product’ instead of ‘sanitary item’ for the same reason. The word ‘sanitary’ refers to conditions that affect hygiene and health. When we use ‘sanitary’ in conjunction with menstruation, we indirectly imply that individuals are dirty and unclean, which is why they need a ‘sanitary item’. ‘Sanitary items’ can also encompass items such as soap, toothpaste, shampoo etc. When we use the term ‘menstrual product’ it is clear exactly what we are talking about. It also works at reclaiming the word menstruation from its negative connotations, helping to break the taboo further.”

Photo credit: Elise Creative

To coincide with International Women’s Day, W? Collective is launching their menstrual cups nationwide. As of March 8, W? Cups will be stocked in a number of online and physical retailers. Bloody great, no?

Photo credit: Elise Creative

Photo credit: Elise Creative

Body recently took some time to chat about W? Collective, what we can do to end period poverty, and why we need to have open and frank discussions about periods and menstruation if we’re to end the discrimination and promote a more equal society. Listen below to hear what she had to say.

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