This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.
I bleed almost every month. I am not sick. I am not injured. I am just one of millions of people who bleed out of my vagina monthly from menstruation/periods. It is a totally normal body process for those with vaginas — it’s when the lining of the uterus falls away when people with vaginas don’t get pregnant. It can be painful and annoying: sometimes you get cramps and sometimes it doesn’t come on time. Sometimes it’ll happen out of nowhere – I have had many times when I have forgotten to bring a pad or tampon and I had to use toilet paper to soak up my blood.
However, among the many menstruators in the Australia-ASEAN region, I am one of the very lucky ones. Some cannot afford sanitary products due to poverty, homelessness, or domestic violence. Accessing places where these products are sold can be challenging and it can be embarrassing to ask for these products, especially from male guardians or shopkeepers. Many who menstruate miss out on school, work, or everyday life due to lack of access to sanitary products.
Share the Dignity, an Australian charity addressing the issue of period poverty, commissioned a “Bloody Big Survey” and report in July 2021 to study the attitudes and experiences relating to periods in Australia. 75 percent of respondents were at least sometimes less able to pay attention in class with periods – only 10% said they never had trouble in class. Because of periods, 40 percent said they at least sometimes called in sick to work while 50 percent said they sometimes missed out on socialising. Imagine the statistics in less privileged ASEAN countries!
Periods are a totally natural process, yet some cultures still consider them as unsanitary or taboo. In Bali, there are signs in front of temples that forbid menstruators from entering. There may be a cultural explanation behind this rule, but for those who are uneducated about the matter, it can make menstruators feel shameful and increase stigma towards menstruation. Many public schools do not teach menstrual hygiene or health education as well and menstruators usually only learn about their period when they first get it. Parents and guardians may pass cultural information on to their child too instead of accurate medical facts.
Social stigma is a huge issue. In countries such as Thailand, period products are taxed and the Thai government recently re-categorised them as cosmetic products. How can these products be classified as luxury goods? They are a basic human need. How can we as menstruators be comfortable with our own bodies when it seems like the government fails to understand the nature of periods?
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. There are organisations that have been working hard to try and tackle the lack of accessibility to period products and menstrual hygiene education. Some provide free sanitary products to those who need it; some provide education to break the stigma; and some lobby these issues to their respective governments. Check them out below:
In 2019, UNICEF launched the #MeronAko campaign in the Philippines, which proved quite successful in changing the mindset towards periods in the region. The campaign consisted of improved school facilities (separate toilets for boys and girls with soap and running water) and age-appropriate resources to educate the students. We need to educate everyone – not just girls and people who menstruate. The campaign has shown that male students are supportive and understanding of those who menstruate.
On top of extensive menstrual hygiene education, businesses and governments need to reduce the barrier to access sanitary products. Provide affordable sanitary products in a safe, private manner in as many places as possible. Abolish tax on period products. Accessing sanitary products should be like accessing toilet paper — free, accessible, and in good quality.
This op-ed was written by Li Xuan Tan, edited by Lauren Twine, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.