The Issue Preventing Female Students in Thailand from Flourishing: No, Its Not Just the Poverty Youre Thinking Of

Hyolim Lee and Eunseol Cho, interview Sharon Park at the Songdo Grace Church, Incheon, South Korea.
  • Opinion by Hyolim Kelly Lee - Eunseol Rachel Cho (bangkok & seoul)
  • Inter Press Service

My backpack, rugged with zippers and the harshness of high school, chafed against the bare skin of my thighs–doughy in comparison. My hands were frantic - searching through every folder and handout and library book hoping for one thing. I could not spend any more time missing out on class. I could not lose the trust of my teacher, who had let me go to the bathroom.

Every second I spent rummaging through a compartment I had already looked at was another second I was wasting—but what other choice did I have? As my fingers foraged for a sanitary pad, the tactile familiarity of the delicate white plastic taped around it all, my breath got sharper and shorter. The enclosure of soldiers seemed to contract in accordance with my lungs, seemingly not wanting to release me until I found one, the walls cramming closer and closer…

Every month, humans, in the ridiculously bureaucratic world we live in, must do a myriad of things to continue living in normalcy.

As daughters living under the authority of adults, both of us (the writers of this editorial) have witnessed our parents get caught up in this whirlwind of paying their rent and going to the supermarket to buy groceries. But when we began the trials and tribulations of puberty, we realized that not only would our parents need to spend their cash on shelter and food every month, but also on menstrual products.

And this isn’t a result of bureaucracy or self-indulgence – but rather the fated one of Mother Nature. The worst part is that periods are a biological cycle. So, unlike the other two tasks, purchasing menstrual products cannot be scheduled later. However, not only am I one of many who have experienced an absence of menstrual products, but we have also seen inconveniently high prices and inaccessibility.

“Period poverty results from limited access to menstrual products,” explain Ayaka Bijl, Sarisa (Monie) Sereeyothin, Julia Pugliese, and Kashvi Chauhan in an email interview with IPS about the organization they are officers for - HER Period Dignity. The writers of this piece are also involved in this organization.

The difference I have realized is that my experience is momentary – a product of forgetfulness, and theirs is enduring: a scarcity or a kind of “poverty” caused by financial and social barriers. Yet, in a world where we have found reliable information at our fingertips, and efforts to combat inequality and human rights violations are more shared than ever in our generation, the term and nuances of “period poverty” are still one that remains frustratingly shrouded in obscurity. 

One of the most significant contributors to the fog surrounding period poverty, clouding it just enough for it not to immediately cross the minds of the upper echelon of society, is period stigma. It is a term for the discrimination menstruating people face, in which misleading cultural norms and beliefs regarding menstruation are utilized. While menstruation is a natural bodily process, numerous religious beliefs prompt denigrating misconceptions about period stigma, often assuming it to be unclean and unholy.

These surrounding misinterpretations of periods continue to invigorate feelings of shame and, therefore, avoidance among both rural and urban communities, especially for the girls and women who might even need to talk about it. Even as someone attending a culturally progressive international school, I still had to rely on a desperate tone of voice and the euphemism of simply “really needing” to go to the bathroom to end up there in the first place.

“Generally, we don't view it as intrinsically negative, but we acknowledge that society indirectly attaches stigma to menstruation, which can shape how our classmates perceive it ... it’s not necessarily a common topic,” states the HER Period Dignity club officers at the International School of Bangkok. Women shouldn’t have to rely on the tentative inferences of others to maintain reproductive hygiene. We need to combat period poverty because doing so means fighting period stigma–which would decrease discrimination and vitriol against menstruating people.

The ramifications of period poverty in a young, school-aged girl’s life are glaringly obvious. As someone just starting high school, I cannot help but think about the things I would not have been able to do had I been forced to stay home due to period poverty. With exams just around the corner, I would have been forced to catch up through vague instructions sent to me on a Google Document. Sweating alongside my teammates under the unabashedly fierce Bangkok sun would not have been an option. Instead of being hot on the heels of my passions at school, I would have been forced to sit still. My entire present would have been on pause, and my future questioned. But this is only the experience of someone standing on a pedestal in society.

For those without the economic privilege that I hold, the result of period poverty would have been so aggravated that hope would either be luxury or delusion. The World Bank estimates that broader society and national economies can profit from better menstruation management: with every 1 percent increase in the proportion of women with secondary education, a country’s annual per capita income grows by 0.3 percent.

But for those who “were not able to go to school in the first place due to economic poverty, not period poverty,” according to Sharon Park, who volunteered in Cambodia for the Songdo Grace Church, their potential would never be fulfilled. The future of the local Thai girls living in the slums next to our school would not be a question; it would be an answer to the generational poverty in their family: inheritance.

Nonetheless, something is more immediately destructive to the young schoolgirls currently experiencing this. Though I was lucky to find a new pad at the bottom of my backpack, for others, health issues are bound to occur when dirty rags and leaves become the new pads and tampons without proper menstrual products. Urinary tract infections and thrush can escalate to life-threatening degrees when left untouched, and continued use of such substitutions could hinder reproductive ability—rendering a woman “useless.”

As someone who faces enough anxiety at school regarding the leakage of period blood, I cannot imagine what these girls are going through without the safety net of a pad or tampon. The issue impacts mental health, too, with a Kenyan school girl committing suicide after facing humiliation in the classroom due to the lack of a pad. These are not isolated cases, with even 68.1 percent of U.S. college students who underwent period poverty monthly reporting symptoms consistent with moderate or severe depression. Period poverty is suppressive and life-threatening in every aspect for young female students.

The 50th Ms. Korea candidate, Park, has helped girls who are beginning menstruation.  She has established an association that aids lower-income women in South Korea by establishing the HER Period Dignity Club. The club is constantly finding ways to ameliorate the issue in Thailand through fundraisers, education, and collaboration with other NGOs.

Bijl explains why the club is crucial at her school. “Although our club's primary focus is on period poverty, we also prioritize the normalization of period stigma.”

In a personal email exchange, the NGO-based club explains the process behind one of its most significant projects.

“We started by meeting the CFO of ISB and the Dean of Students and presented our idea through a formal proposal that detailed the way we would satisfy the needs of our community,” installing free pads in all the female high school and eventually middle school bathrooms. We chose the name 'Code Red' to evoke the sensation of surprise associated with experiencing your period unexpectedly,” say the leaders.

As an extension of this, they “went to speak in middle and elementary school classrooms about menstruation from a destigmatizing perspective.”

The club at the International School of Bangkok was first established after having “the opportunity to meet Pear (Manyasiri Chotbunwong), who leads the HER Period Dignity NGO,” at a service conference. Hearing about Pear's proactive efforts to address this issue motivated us to actively participate in her mission. Pear founded HER (Health. Equity. Respect.).

The NGO also provides “reusable pads help individuals break free from the constant need to buy new ones, improving access to menstrual products,” says Bijl.

The ISB club can be found sharing awareness on Instagram (@herperioddignity.isb), and the HER Period Dignity NGO can be found as well (@herperioddignity).

From my mother to your daughter and her friends, from the waitress at a restaurant you are ordering at to the beautiful model posing in an advertisement at the bus stop, every menstruator deserves period products. We, the authors of this editorial, are members of a generation pushing for radical change in the overarching matters of our lives. This includes acting upon the philosophy above in this paragraph. The Code Red initiative has helped me breathe in the bathroom, knowing there was always a collection of pads in a basket next to the sink I could rely on.

“We hope that from here, it only continues to improve,” Bijl.

Everyone deserves that continued normalcy in the beautiful yet chaotic world that we live in—which includes life with minimal hindrance from periods. In the future, Eunseol and I aim to further clear the fog of obscurity around the issue at school.  As Park stated, “Change begins with the people, when we are aware.”

Note: Edited by Hanna Yoon

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