First menstrual cup to be legally available in Taiwan

image copyrightFormoonsa Cup

Many women swear by menstrual cups, but in Taiwan, strict laws mean they cannot be sold. As the BBC's Grace Tsoi explains, that might be about to change thanks to a crowdfunding campaign.

"It is a challenge to the common perceptions of feminine hygiene products," says Vanessa Tseng, a 34-year-old entrepreneur.

Six years ago, Ms Tseng introduced the first tampons with applicators to the Taiwanese market, and she has now started the "Formoonsa Cup" project, to develop Taiwan's first domestically-made menstrual cup.

Worn internally, menstrual cups are reusable, and hailed as an economical and more green alternative to sanitary pads and tampons. They are also considered to bring a much lower risk of toxic shock syndrome, a rare but life-threatening condition linked to tampon use.

While the cups have a small but loyal - and vocal - global fanbase, in Taiwan they are categorised as "medium risk" medical devices. An official told Taiwanese press that menstrual cups are classified as "medium risk" medical devices as they are worn inside the body. So, authorities have to ensure that the materials are of good quality and will not cause infections.

Manufacturers and importers have to pass stringent tests to obtain permits to sell them.

So introducing them to the Taiwanese market was considered a terrible investment.

image copyrightVanessa Tseng
image captionVanessa Tseng started a crowdfunding project for Taiwan's first menstrual cup

Even if manufacturers can obtain a permit, a ban on online sales means they could only be sold in physical stores, pushing the cost up further.

Taiwanese women either have to buy cups overseas, or through Shopping in Australia, while in China. And even then they risk being confiscated at customs.

But with her tampon business on track, Ms Tseng wanted a new challenge. She asked her boss - also her father - to invest $3m Taiwanese dollars ($95,200; £76200) into developing the first Taiwanese menstrual cup.

He was unwilling to take the risk, but undeterred she began a crowdfunding campaign.

Within three days, Ms Tseng got the $3m she needed. Within three months, she had more than tripled that.

image copyrightThinkstock

In July this year, Shih Wen-fei, a friend of Ms Tseng's who also works for her on a part-time basis, started an online petition on a government platform, calling for the online sale of menstrual cups to be legalised.

Current laws state that the government has to respond if the online petition gains more than 5,000 signatures in 60 days.

Ms Shih's petition gained more than 6,000 signatures in two weeks.

Authorities have hinted that online sales of menstrual cups will be a possibility soon, but they need to consult medical professionals and other departments to hammer out the details.

The "Formoonsa Cup" is expected to have obtained the necessary licenses and will go on sale by the end of this year.

A spokeswoman from Taiwan's food and drug administration told BBC News that they were still processing the permit but the issuing date had not been confirmed.

But will the cup succeed? Like many places in Asia, there has been a taboo around menstruation and tampon use.

In the late 1990s, only 2.1% of Taiwanese women said they used tampons, and until 2009, the packaging of tampons sold in Taiwan contained warnings "unmarried women should use with caution", or "use the products with doctors' instructions".

But younger generations have become more open towards tampons.

In a survey carried out by the National Taiwan University that polled about 360 university female students, 35.3% said they had used tampons. The survey also found that old-fashioned fears about breaking the hymen were no longer a key concern for them.

image copyrightVanessa Tseng
image captionWomen look at different menstrual cups with enthusiasm during a promotional event in Taipei

Huang Jiun-hau, one of the authors of that report, told the BBC that hymen fears are "the epitome of patriarchy".

"Women have a greater awareness to be more in control with their bodies," he said.

Mr Huang expected that women in Taiwan would also be similarly open to menstrual cups.

Both Ms Tseng and Ms Shih also attribute a greater environmental awareness to the success of the menstrual cup crowd-funding project.

"Using menstrual cups do not produce any rubbish during periods," Ms Shih said.

Ms Tseng said her campaign also focused on the environmental benefits and the potential savings.

Selling menstrual cups may not necessarily be good for Ms Tseng's business, as some of her customers will no longer be buying tampons from her. But she said there was another motive behind.

"I am a very vain person. I want to be the first one to sell menstrual cups in Taiwan."

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