Period drama: how Asian women broke the menstruation taboo

PHOTO: Pixabay

When South Korean entrepreneur Gina Park launched her Eve Cup last July, she received 10 million won (S$11,900) worth of orders in the first 30 minutes of it being listed on a crowdfunding site.

Six hours later, she had more than 880 orders, worth 20 million won, for the white silicone cups designed to collect menstrual fluid.

But then came the questions. "On our product page, so many people asked if the menstrual cup would result in them losing their virginity," said the 26-year-old, who had heard similar concerns about tampons, which are also inserted into the vagina but absorb menstrual discharge rather than collecting it.

Misconceptions about menstrual products and menstruation are something women the world over have long grappled with, but the problem is especially acute in Asia's conservative societies where education can be lacking and there is still gender discrimination.

Religious texts - including the Torah, Bible and Quran - refer to the "impurity" of menstrual discharge. There are also cultural taboos to contend with.

On the island of Sumba, in eastern Indonesia, a belief persists that sexually transmitted diseases are caused by menstruating women, while in some parts of Nepal they are banished to "menstruation huts", where they are at risk of exposure to extreme temperatures and attacks by wild animals.

There have been recorded instances of Nepalese women dying of smoke inhalation in such huts after lighting a fire to keep warm.

In India, where a factory-made sanitary pad can cost between 8 and 20 US cents, international NGO WaterAid said in 2017 that 88 per cent of women were using makeshift menstrual health products - made from such unhygienic materials as rags, hay and dried leaves - often because they could not afford to buy them from the shop.

However, thanks to the work of social entrepreneurs like Arunchalam Muruganantham, who invented a machine that enables women in rural India to create their own sanitary pads for a fraction of the cost of those sold commercially, things have started to change.

The native of Tamil Nadu state and his machine, as well as some of the women who have benefited from it, were the subject of the Netflix documentary Period. End of Sentence, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary earlier this year.

Following pressure from high-profile activists, including Bollywood actors, a 12 per cent tax on sanitary pads previously levied by the Indian government was withdrawn last July. Companies such as Azah - a Delhi-based start-up that sold more than 80,000 affordable, locally produced pads in the space of two months - have also recently emerged.

In other parts of Asia there has been a move away from sanitary pads amid a spate of health scares and environmental concerns surrounding single-use products.

In 2015, a state-owned magazine in China felt compelled to allay readers' fears that locally made sanitary pads contained toxic chemicals such as fluorescent whitening agents.

A year later, police in Jiangxi province uncovered a fraudulent operation that was thought to have churned out millions of fake pads from dirty facilities.

South Korea became an unlikely regional trailblazer in alternative menstrual products after the release of test results by a consumer group in 2017 that found harmful chemicals, including cancer-causing benzene, in locally sold sanitary pads.

Park, the founder of Eve Cup, launched her company Instinctus a few years before that health scare. Initially, she and her co-founder had wanted to make affordable condoms more readily available to teenagers through conveniently placed vending machines.

The idea of launching a menstrual cup came as a way of providing essential education in reproductive health, which can often be lacking in South Korea. "Menstruation in our company is framed as natural, and we use actual terms like vagina, sex, penis all the time," Park said. "Before we launched, those words were not commonly used by menstrual health companies."

In advertising campaigns for sanitary products, euphemisms such as "it" or "magic day" were far more common than "period" or "menstruation", she said.

"Mothers want to provide healthier products for their daughters but they worry the cup could ruin their bodies," Park said, giving another example of the kinds of questions she has had to field about the Eve Cup.

On the item's product page are instructions on how to use the cup correctly - including how women can measure themselves for the right-size cup, how long it should stay inside the body and how to sanitise it using boiling water.

Ultimately, the goal was to help Korean women become more comfortable with their bodies and talk more about menstruation, Park said.

For the women who have access to them, such alternative menstrual care products can be life-changing.

Hongkonger Tina Chu remembers going to great lengths to conceal her period when she was younger.

"One time in school, I was sitting on a white plastic chair and I could feel that it was wet," she said.

"I was mortified - I couldn't get up until everybody around me had left."

Three years ago, Chu - now 37 - chanced upon menstrual underwear, a product she said had revolutionalised her lifestyle.

"It's really comfortable … It's seamless and thin, [and] you can wear it under leggings without looking like you're wearing diapers," she said.

Then there are entrepreneurs like Yeelin Chong, founder of Cotton Mermaid - a Singapore-based retailer looking to meet the rising demand for alternative, eco-friendly menstrual products. "A lot of women don't even know such products exist, so I see a business opportunity here," said the 39-year-old.

Beyond plugging such gaps in the market, a new wave of activists in mainland China and Hong Kong - where adverts for sanitary pads have equated periods with dirt and germs - are seeking to break the stigma that surrounds menstruation.

Three years ago, Joyce Fung, a graduate student and founder of Hong Kong-based activism group MenstruAction, switched to using cloth pads after she realised they were more comfortable and eco-friendly than regular plastic sanitary towels. But like many women living in the city, the lack of space in her small family home meant she was no longer able to hide her periods.

"My dad was shocked when he first saw my cloth pads hung on the rack," she said, adding that after she explained their benefits to him "he now calls my pads 'angels' because of the wings".

In mainland China, tampons are widely available, but only 2 per cent of women use them - compared with Europe, where that figure is closer to 70 per cent.

This disparity led Olivia Coates-James to found menstrual care start-up Luuna Naturals, which aims to provide both eco-friendly products and consumer education. The company sold out its first line of tampons soon after they were launched in February and has since hosted several education workshops and product-testing events in Shanghai.

"Ultimately for us, it's not about converting women to tampons," Coates-James said.

"But if you come at these conversations in the right way, most women in a safe environment want to find a better solution to something that affects their life every single month." 

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.