When Wendy Kou read the headline on a Chinese social media platform about whether sanitary pads should be sold on railways, she frowned. The debate was heated. Some felt it provided a basic women’s health service, while others vehemently opposed it as a private matter and felt that women should come to trains prepared.
“I found the request totally normal. It is surprising to see that so many people are against it and raising it to the level of bigger issues,” she told NPR by phone from Chongqing city, where she currently attends university. For her, the question should not even be asked.
But for many people in China, a country that ranks 107 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Gender Gap Index, it is still considered embarrassing to openly discuss menstruation or to take out sanitary pads in public.
“Private items such as sanitary pads are not sold on railways, and passengers need to bring them by themselves,” a customer service representative of China Railway, the state-owned railroad operator, replied via social media when a female passenger requested that pads be sold on trains.
But who decides what is private?
Kou decided to speak up. Majoring in visual design, she drew up a series of posters about menstruation and posted them around her university’s campus. “I think that ‘period’ shouldn’t be a shameful word for women to speak out in public,” she said.
One of her inspirations comes from the common experience of buying sanitary pads in China: The checker always wraps them in a black plastic bag before handing them back to customers, assuming it is embarrassing to be seen with them.
“It is like an unsaid convention. So, why not design a transparent plastic bag, with ‘NO PERIOD SHAME’ [printed] on it?” Kou said.
A male relationship influencer with nearly 1.3 million followers on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, doesn’t think the discussion has anything to do with period shame. “Sanitary pads are not emergency supplies, unlike Band-Aids, disinfectants, or quick-acting heart relievers. Therefore, since it is a commodity, the cost must be considered,” he posted, opposing the idea of selling pads. “Don’t be a giant baby, whether it is provided or not by the railways, you should learn to plan ahead and be independent,” he added.
Another tech influencer put it more directly. “Railways only provide food, they are not grocery stores,” he wrote on Weibo. “Are you asking railways to sell sanitary pads together with peanuts and beers in the dining car?” He showed his embarrassment by using a facepalm emoji. The post was liked 17,000 times.
For Zudy Zheng, co-founder of Period Pride, mainland China’s first social innovation group focusing on menstruation health and hygiene, the driving force behind this debate is gender inequality.
“We are not asking for free pads on trains, but a commercial sale of these products, as meals and poker cards are all being sold on trains,” Zheng said. “The society is operating according to a default standard set up by men, so it is difficult to understand women’s needs.”
Calling for pads as an essential item
A group formed by young women, Period Pride wants to bring the subject of menstruation out into the open in China and works to fights against the stigma surrounding it. To celebrate 2021’s International Women’s day, it launched an online campaign called #NothingToBeAshamedOf, encouraging women to openly share their hygiene products and personal stories related to menstruation.
During the past two years, they have been helping women obtain menstruation products in some cities where China’s zero-COVID policy enforced stringent lockdowns, limiting access to these supplies.
“Government only sent us masks, and some families with difficulties would receive food like rice and oil; sanitary pads were never provided,” Xiaomin, a health worker in the Chinese city of Ruili, on the southwestern border with Myanmar, told NPR by phone, “When the city is locked down, you cannot go anywhere, it is hard to buy them,” Xiaomin said, giving only her first name because of security concerns.
As a health worker, Xiaomin needs to wear an airtight hazmat suit for at least four hours a day, which is especially uncomfortable when she has heavy menstrual bleeding.
“Once the suit is on, we can’t drink and go to the toilet,” she said.
When she received pads sent out by Period Pride, which raised money and managed to transport thousands packages of pads to Ruili during the lockdown, she felt like she was being supported. “I hope that pads can be provided as an essential item to female health workers. It is our natural need.”
Promoting open discussion of periods
Growing up with her parents and her brother in a village outside of Chongqing city, Nova Tan knew that her period should not be discussed openly, as her mother always hid sanitary pads carefully and threw them away immediately after usage.
“Behaviors are even more convincing than words. My mom has never left any traces of period at home,” said Tan. “So without saying it explicitly, I know that period is considered embarrassing.”
Tan learned about menstruation from an older sister, which saved her from panicking when her first period came. It wasn’t until high school that menstruation was mentioned in her biology class, “but it was too late,” she sighs.
Her situation is not unique. A 2020 survey conducted by China Family Planning Association and Tsinghua University showed that only half of nearly 55,000 students surveyed from thousands of universities nationwide said they received sex education in school, and less than 15% said they felt “very satisfied” with what they were taught.
Today in some parts of China, menstruating women are still seen as “dirty.” Tan remembers that she was told not to go to wedding ceremonies when she was having her period, which would be seen as inappropriate at festive occasions. “Especially in rural areas, this is a widely practiced custom,” she recalled.
“If we can have a scientific explanation of the period when we were young, we won’t feel ashamed when having a period,” Tan said.
Last year, Tan created a podcast called “TruffleRice.” Her idea is to have conversations about female issues with two friends, and their first topic was menstruation.
“Discussing these issues openly would probably help to empower women,” Tan said.
As for who won the debate on whether to sell sanitary pads on trains, it’s hard to say. But two weeks after the social media firestorm, some noticed that the period products were being sold on China Railway.
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