In Seoul, a city widely recognised as one of the most forward-thinking in the world, a stigma around menstruation persists. When a leading sanitary product company raised prices by 8% last year, low-income girls and women flooded social media with stories about how they cannot afford to buy pads every month – resorting instead to missing school or using makeshift products. The government’s response was swift: it announced two initiatives that would provide young women with pads – a basic necessity – for free.
Despite Seoul’s economic prosperity and global standing, inequality still exists. Earlier this year, social media exposed this inequality and developed an awareness of the need for female hygiene among the general public. Due to a lack of available and affordable sanitary pads, a large proportion of teenage girls, particularly from low-income backgrounds, experience unsanitary and unhealthy conditions.
In South Korea, despite the variety of brands on the market, the price of sanitary pads can prove too high for such a basic necessity. Nevertheless, in May 2016, a price increase of 8% on existing products was announced by Yuan-Kimberly, one of the leading companies of sanitary products in South Korea. Many South Koreans were angry with this increase, and used social media to expose the issues related to this price increase, whilst sharing personal stories related to the availability (or lack thereof) of sanitary pads.
This was the first time that young women had publicly shared the detrimental cost of their periods. A lot of women shared their stories, not only raising awareness, but also creating a collective movement.
What became clear from the social media campaign, above all else, was that teenage girls from low-income backgrounds are struggling to afford sanitary pads. Shocking accounts were publicly shared, like the girl who was forced to lie on towels at home all day during her period and miss school, or the female high school student who replaced her sanitary pad with a shoe insole. These cases highlight the difficulty experienced by young women from low-income backgrounds on a monthly basis.
It is deeply worrying that young women from low-income backgrounds have such difficulty in sourcing sanitary pads, a basic necessity for women, and taking care of their health, especially given that they are in important stages of growth and maturation. As a result of the social media campaign, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) started a policy initiative that guarantees young women their fundamental human rights to gender identity and health.
Free sanitary pads for teenage girls
Following the new policy, SMG now provides free sanitary pads to teenage girls aged between 10 and 19, since this basic necessity can impose a massive financial burden on girls from low-income families.
There are two key initiatives providing free sanitary pads. First, 850 centres and facilities frequently used by vulnerable teenagers such as pharmacies and centres for runaway youths distributed free sanitary pads. Second, sanitary pads are delivered to the homes of teenagers from low-income backgrounds. In order to help the 27,279 teenage girls who benefit from the service to use it anonymously, applications are received via either the city website or via e-mail. The service will then deliver five months’ supply of sanitary pads (two packs per month, 18 pads per pack) to their homes. Applications were accepted from the end of June to July 2016, and the products will be delivered from the beginning of August 2016.
The SMG is planning not only on investing a budget worth $444,550 towards this project, but also on securing a sustainable support system for the project by cooperating with Community Chest of Korea, alongside the participation of the private sector. The sanitary pads also contain information about menstruation and reproduction.
Removing the stigma from periods in Seoul
The SMG will also begin a project called Family Doctors for Girls before the end of 2016, to provide sex and health education for vulnerable social groups. The project will be implemented in cooperation with doctors, pharmacists, Saenghyup (a “consumer cooperative”) and local women’s organisations.
The Seoul Health Centre will establish the Puberty Health Clinic to offer sexual and reproductive health education for young people. The clinic will also organise parties to celebrate the first period, helping to de-stigmatise what can be an uncertain and scary time for young women. The Hope Welfare Centre, Community Service Centre, and youth facilities will provide additional health training for teenage girls to fill the gaps in underserviced areas of health care.
There will also be health campaign for girls in Seoul will be promoted not only to improve social awareness of the issues surrounding menstruation, but also to foster an environment that encourages the widespread availability of sanitary pads in schools and youth facilities.
The combined efforts of SMG, businesses, health centres and community groups, are helping to realise the rights of thousands of young girls across Seoul.
This article by Jinhwa Park was originally published on Social Innovation Exchange.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Social Innovation Exchange)