In South Korea menstruation is frequently labelled as a private occurrence for women: hence, many people avoid discussing it in public. South Korean women are expected to keep their personal lives distinct from their public image. As a result, the government in South Korea has paid little attention to period poverty. However, period poverty is a looming global health crisis and simultaneously con-stitutes for a human rights violation. Then why is the term so unfamiliar with most and why are we not talking about it?
Seoul – As we will soon be celebrating World Menstruation Day (28 June), it is time to revisit the issue of period poverty, particularly in South Korea and at our university, The Catholic Univer-sity of Korea (CUK). Since 2018, people living Seoul have been able to profit from free female sanitary products dis-pensed at 10 public facilities in the South Korean capital, including the Seoul Museum of Art and the Seoul Museum of History, in its effort to tack-le period poverty (Source: The Korea Herald). Despite common unfamiliarity with the term, period poverty affects millions of menstruating individuals globally, poses a health risk and re-stricts them in countless ways in their everyday lives.
Failure to address this issue constitutes a human rights violation – and still we don’t talk about it. It is the governments' and society's responsibility to ensure the proper recognition of those vulnera-ble to period poverty. Globally, it is estimated that around 500 million menstruating individuals lack access to menstrual products (Source: BMC Women’s Health)
What is Period Poverty?
It is a term used to refer to the situa-tion when menstruators do not have the financial resources to access period products and safe and hy-gienic spaces to you use them.
Why should people in an economically strong country like Korea care at all? One reason is that it is often believed that period poverty is a phe-nomenon unique to the Global South.
While it holds true that in countries of the Global South, the financial predicament is frequently compounded by the lack of a safe and sanitary place in which menstrual persons can change their period products, countries of the Global North also, unfortunately, face period poverty, although to a lesser degree. Even in those countries, people may perceive period products as an immense financial burden or are no longer able to afford them at all. In such cases, menstruators have to result to other meth-ods to deal with their periods.
Supposedly adequate replacements such as shreds of cloth, socks, newspaper, toilet paper, or even sand are used in an attempt to collect the blood. The "alternatives" people turn to are rarely sani-tary and can serve as a breeding ground for bacte-ria, leading to serious infections.Menstruators in Korea have gone as far as using the soles of sneakers to deal with their periods – being dubbed “insole girls” by the public.
During this scandal, the country’s largest men-strual products producer Yuhan-Kimberly had the audacity to mark-up prices by 20% (Source: Global Citizen).
Seoul City’s efforts to tackle period poverty have to be acknowledged but must not be praised. Af-ter all, the initiative only ensured the provision of period products at 10 public facilities. “I wish our university would provide free female hygiene products in the bathrooms”, says Park Min-ju, a biotechnology student in her second year at CUK. She continues: “Red cards to check for spy cam-eras have already been distributed across the bathrooms so it’s not like CUK does not care for the female students’ safety and well-being.” “Why stop there?” Park asks an important ques-tion. “I think it’s because periods are still a taboo topic in Korea”.
Kiara Casagrande, an exchange student at CUK from Italy, also said, "I was shocked to see how expensive pads and tampons were when I came to Korea. Sometimes you won't find the latter in the pharmacy. All products cost at least twice or three times more than Italy. Luckily, I'm using menstrual cups, so the price didn't affect me much, but if I take up so much of my monthly salary, I can't imagine how menstruating Koreans will live."
Periods, as well as poverty, being regarded as social taboos is not an issue unique to South Korea. Especially menstruation carries a strong negative connotation whereby menstruators are seen as impure. Similarly, social taboos encourage incomplete and inconsistent sex education, resulting in men-struating individuals lacking proper knowledge for managing their periods. According to Lee Na-yeong, a psychology student in her final year at CUK, the university already has a “menstruation pass” for those unable to join their classes when on their periods. However, she believes that also students unable to afford feminine hygiene products make use of this special pass, and its usage is not just restricted to those suffering severe menstrual symptoms.
Such restrictions are important as period poverty also hinders menstruators from realising their full potential when they miss out on vital academic, professional, and self-growth opportunities. Nobody chooses to have periods and nobody chooses to be disadvantaged due to the reproduc-tive organs they have. In democratic welfare states, like Korea, people should be able to expect support from their gov-ernments in improving their lives.
The safe and sanitary management of one's period is an inherent human right. Human rights are rights that every human being possesses because of their dignity as a person. Menstruation is inte-grally tied to human dignity. In instances where individuals lack access to safe and efficient means of managing their menstrual hygiene, they cannot manage their periods with dignity. This is true for menstrual women and girls, as well as transgender males and those who are nonbinary. Therefore, it is the governments' and society's responsibility to ensure the proper inclusion of those vulnerable to period poverty.
A lot begins with educating the youth subject to menstruation from an early age, both at home and school to promote healthy habits and break social stigmas. Conversations around periods should be similarly normalised to reduce shame, stigma and offer an effective solution. Despite some available infor-mation, the scope of period poverty is still not researched enough and more research is crucial for advocacy. Most importantly, menstruators need national advocacy and governmental help to provide ade-quate infrastructure and access to affordable men-strual hygiene products. This could be realised through protective legislation.
The pressing issue of period poverty affects mil-lions of menstruating individuals globally, which poses a physical health risk, a mental health risk, causes them to miss out on education and work and violates menstruators' human rights. Hygiene is not a luxury but a fundamental right. Therefore, joint strategies on both national and communal levels must be pursued to ensure peri-ods are as comfortable as they can possibly get.
Seoul’s provision of free female hygiene products are a good start to tackle the issue of period pov-erty, however, it is just that – a humble beginning.
Menstruating individuals go beyond the scope of 10 public facilities, beyond the capital city but can be found all over the country in all kinds of places and institutions. So, while all women are affected, students make up the most vulnerable age group due to their lack of income. Therefore, providing menstrual hy-giene products at all types of schools and univer-sities, including CUK, would be the next step for South Korea to tackle the problem of period pov-erty as a public health issue, to break social ta-boos, and kickstart the conversation.