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[FEATURE] Sanitary pads controversy brings light on women's poverty, reproductive health

Ock Hye-rim was 21 years old when she moved to Seoul from her hometown in Busan in 2001. While living on her own, she worked for a clothing company, six days a week, and was paid 600,000 won ($508) per month.

Due to severe work-related stress and grueling hours, she developed abnormal vaginal bleeding.

“It went on for more than two months,” Ock said in an interview with The Korea Herald. “I had to use sanitary pads every day. And the cost for the pads just became unbearable. I was only getting paid 600,000 won and my monthly rent alone was 200,000 won.”

Her difficult first years living in Seoul is what makes Ock empathize with teenagers from low-income households who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. Ever since Yuhan-Kimberly -- a leading sanitary pad maker here -- announced plans to raise prices of its premium pads by up to 20 percent in May, heartbreaking stories have filled social media here, including instances of girls who had to use shoe insoles as alternatives.
Sanitary pads painted in red and signs that protest the stigma and taboo associated with menstruation are struck in Insa-dong, Seoul, Sunday. The signs say: “Students have to use shoe insoles as alternatives as pads are too expensive” and “Why are pregnancies and deliveries considered sacred while menstruation is not?” (Yonhap)
Sanitary pads painted in red and signs that protest the stigma and taboo associated with menstruation are struck in Insa-dong, Seoul, Sunday. The signs say: “Students have to use shoe insoles as alternatives as pads are too expensive” and “Why are pregnancies and deliveries considered sacred while menstruation is not?” (Yonhap)
Ock considered herself lucky. Having been trained in the fashion industry, she managed to create her own reusable sanitary pads by using cotton cloth from her towel. She would hand wash them every night and it involved soaking the used pads in water for a few hours to wash out the bodily fluids first.

“I didn’t really mind washing the pads,” she said. “I was used to hand washing my clothes growing up. Yet I just wish no young woman has to struggle because they don’t have access to hygiene products today.”

Poverty and reproductive health

The ongoing controversy reveals not only the costly price of the products in Korea, but also the effects of poverty and poor menstrual hygiene on young women’s reproductive health.

It also highlighted how talking openly about menstruation in Korea is considered a taboo.

According to a local news daily, a single sanitary pad in South Korea costs about 260 won ($0.23) to 331 won, which is about 50 to 70 percent more expensive than most other developed nations. In Korea, the average price of sanitary pads rose by 25.6 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the Korea National Council of Consumer Organizations.

Studies have shown that poverty has an impact on young women’s reproductive health.

According to lawmaker Rep. Kim Seung-hee’s office, Korean female teenagers who fall under the poorest 10 percent in the country experience reproductive tract infection 1.6 times more frequently than those belonging to the wealthiest 10 percent, based on national health insurance data from 2005-2015. 

According to health care professionals, not changing sanitary pads every three to four hours -- no matter how light the menstrual flow -- can lead to conditions like skin rashes and vaginal infections.

“We can’t conclude that poor menstrual hygiene management is the main cause of reproductive tract infections among young women,” the ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker said. “But both the statistics on the particular infection and the controversy on sanitary pads have revealed that the country did not look after young women’s basic health needs properly.”

According to a report by the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, a network of international organizations that work on issues of hygiene and water, millions of girls and women worldwide are subject to “restrictions in their daily lives just because they are menstruating.”

The report also pointed out that the lack of, or unaffordability, of appropriate sanitary products and facilities may lead menstruating girls to temporarily or sometimes permanently drop out of school.

“The gender-unfriendly school culture and infrastructure and lack of clean, safe and private sanitation facilities for girls undermine the right of privacy, resulting in a fundamental infringement of human rights,” the report added. It cited research from 2007 that found a relationship between the onset of puberty and significantly reduced school participation among girls, especially in developing countries.

‘What I had to give up in exchange for pads’

Whenever Oh Min-ju had her period, she had to put on a brave face.

Having been raised single-handedly by her grandmother, who relied on government subsidies for a major part of her income, Oh always used free pads that were available from her school’s infirmary.

“The pads were free to whoever asked for them,” the 18-year-old told The Korea Herald. “But most girls went to the infirmary only when they forgot to bring the pads from home. I was the only one who went there every day whenever I was on my period. I had to go often because my flow was so heavy and I was scared the pad may leak.”

She said most of her teachers were understanding, but some of them would scold her for not bringing her own pads or ask unnecessary questions.

“I think this teacher was aware of my financial situation,” she said. “But she would always ask me why I get my pads from the infirmary (instead of bringing my own). It was at times humiliating. I acted as if the questions didn’t affect me. But of course I cared. I just had too much pride to show it.”

Oh dropped out of high school last year to make and save money. Her goal is to enroll in a university famous for its creative writing program after passing a high school diploma qualification exam.

Ever since she quit school, she has been working part-time and now purchases her own pads. “I don’t think I would risk my health by using something as unsafe as an alternative to sanitary pads,” she said. “But purchasing the pads means I sometimes can’t buy the books I need or give up on my snacks.”

Kim Soo-young, a 17-year-old high school student who has suffered from domestic abuse, currently lives on her own after leaving her family. A relative pays for her monthly rent, but she has to rely on her own income from part-time jobs for all other living expenses.

To save money, Kim said she does not use pads at all when her menstrual flow is light. And whenever she is on the night shift, she is too busy to change her pads regularly. “I only have enough pads for my heaviest days,” she said. “I often get skin rashes and it’s painful.”

Since the issue was brought to light, both the government and private firms have donated pads for school children who have limited access to hygiene products, but some activists say they should be available for free for all school children from now on.

“Right now medicine is free at all school infirmaries, but sanitary pads are not,” said Yeo Gyeong from the nongovernmental organization Womenlink.

“All girls menstruate regardless of their income status, just like any girl can get sick in school regardless of their household income. Those girls who ask for the products in school shouldn’t be shamed. Free and clean pads should be a human right.”

‘Fight to end period shaming should go mainstream’ 

Last month, Park Sam-yong, a fourth-term Gwangju city councilor from the Saenuri Party, said Koreans should stop calling sanitary pads “saengridae,” which is Korean for menstruation pads, and instead start calling them “wisaengdae,” which translates into sanitary pads.

His reason was that the word saengri -- meaning menstruation -- is “repulsive” to the public.

Han Soo-jin, a 25-year-old Seoulite, remembers a particular incident of period shaming when she was in high school. When she accidentally dropped one of her pads in a hallway, her physical education teacher picked it up and threw it at her face. He told her, “You should be careful and don’t make people feel uncomfortable by making such a careless mistake.”

In response to Park’s remarks, a group of women stuck sanitary pads with red paint on them around central Seoul to protest against the stigma and taboo associated with menstruation.

They also held signs that read: “No uterus, no opinion” and “Menstrual blood is not blue.”

The latter refers to a story that recently went viral: A woman recently found out that her boyfriend had thought all along that menstrual blood was blue, as he had only seen the blue liquid used in feminine hygiene TV commercials.

In Australia, a campaign recently replaced the common blue liquid used to represent menstrual blood. It features instead a bunch of furious-looking people in red suits to demonstrate that they are locked in a “prison” of padded cell.

“There is nothing wrong with women’s menstrual blood,” said Jeong Ji-hye, a 31-year-old office worker. “I never really thought about it, but the ongoing controversy makes me wonder why menstrual blood has to be shown as blue liquid on TV in the first place. The blood is not harmful.”

Lee Soo-yeon, a researcher from the Korea Women’s Development Institute, said the general public perceives menstruation as something private and not to be openly talked about, contrary to pregnancies and deliveries that are often portrayed as “sacred.”

She said the common practice of providing black plastic bags for feminine hygiene products at stores -- apparently to hide it -- is one prevalent example of period shaming in Korea.

“I definitely think the perception should change,” she said. “Menstruation should be talked about in a more open manner, in a more positive context. The products don’t need to be hidden in public places.”

Inspired by her personal experience, Ock now runs a business selling reusable menstrual products made with cotton cloth. Although she started using her reusable pads because she could not afford disposable ones, Ock said she in fact experienced health benefits by using reusable products, such as fewer occurrence of skin rashes.

When some activists suggested donating reusable pads to teenagers living under the poverty line last month, critics called the idea “inconsiderate” and even “ridiculous.” They said such products cannot be used by those who share rooms with male family members, or those who do not have adequate washing and drying facilities at home.

Yet Oh, who recently benefitted from Ock’s donation of her products, said the presence of male family members should not prevent any woman from using reusable pads, if that is what she prefers.

Not being able to hang up a reusable pad to dry just because there is a male family member in the house is unfair and is a clear example of period shaming, she added.

“I have a good washing machine and I only live with my grandmother,” she said. “But I don’t think I would’ve changed my mind even if I did (live with a male family member). There’s nothing wrong with washing and hang drying sanitary pads. If someone in the house is uncomfortable, it’s their problem.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)

Kim Soo-young and Han Soo-jin are not their real names. The names were changed upon request. – Ed.
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