When the fundraising campaign started last week, 17-year-old high school girl Joyce Peng thought the target might have been too ambitious.
The plan was to raise 90,000 yuan (US$13,100) for sanitary products for girls in a remote, mountainous part of southwest China.
Joyce and her friends in the Stand TogetHer feminist club in Chengdu, Sichuan province, launched the campaign on an online charity website and their doubts were soon erased.
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In just over a day, the target was met and exceeded, with the group raising just under 125,000 yuan to help 700 impoverished girls at a primary school in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, one of the poorest parts of the country.
“I’m very excited and so happy,” Joyce said.
The money means that the group can buy enough sanitary pads for hundreds of girls for a whole year. But the campaign has also brought attention to a major health and welfare issue in rural China, one that means many girls skip school once they start menstruating.
Liangshan is about 500km from Chengdu but it is another world in terms of income. About 5.31 million people live in the prefecture and of those 178,000 are poor, according to local media reports.
For many of these families, finances barely stretch to food, let alone sanitary products for girls.
Through a personal connection, the group contacted the women’s federation in Zhaojue county and started researching the issue of “period poverty” in the township of Sikai.
Period poverty has become an international issue in recent years. This year Scotland became the first region in the world to provide free menstrual hygiene products. Ireland, Canada, and Australia have made sanitary pads tax-free while other countries have cut taxes on sanitary products to make them more affordable. But in China the value-added tax on sanitary pads is the standard 13 per cent.
In Sikai, the members of the Stand TogetHer classmates were unprepared for what they found. They discovered that pads were just as expensive in the town as they were in Chengdu, averaging in price about 1 yuan per pad. Very few girls could afford the cost, and so most bought a big pack of toilet paper for about a sixth of the price of the pads.
Joyce and her friends used their research as the basis for a documentary, underlining their point by testing on themselves the same paper that the Sikai girls resorted to.
“It feels like sandpaper. It’s not clean and hygienic, and tends to leak and cause embarrassment. That puts added psychological pressure on menstruating girls,” Joyce said.
“Some girls do not know how to take care of themselves when they have their first period. Panic, confusion, fear, and anxiety have become almost a psychological norm for many girls.”
A teacher in Sikai, who did not want to be named, said some girls had to use other materials to cope with their period, compounding the shame.
“Impoverished girls have to use cloth, toilet paper, and other materials, and they are ashamed of their discomfort during their periods, so skipping classes or taking time off becomes routine,” the teacher said.
Li Jun, a sociology and communications associate professor at Shantou University, said period poverty was a public health issue and authorities needed to be involved.
“Menstrual poverty is caused by the government’s public health policy, which doesn’t take women’s biological needs into account. If manufacturers can make cheap and sterile sanitary napkins that meet disposal requirements, such manufacturers should be given tax breaks,” Li said.
“Public policies to improve women’s hygiene in poor areas should be put in place and considered together with the poverty alleviation campaign.”
There are some signs that public awareness is growing in China about the need for more affordable sanitary products.
On Friday, a screenshot of cheap, unbranded tampons for sale online was widely circulated on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. Some commenters wondered why women would buy unbranded products of dubious quality. Two purchasers said they just could not afford to buy anything else.
The topic sparked heated discussions about women’s hygiene among thousands of users.
In Sichuan, Joyce’s group plans to use the money they raised online to supply 700 or so girls at Sikai Township Central School with the sanitary napkins they need for an entire year. They also plan to work with the county’s women’s federation to produce a handbook with advice for girls.
Joyce said the aim was to start in one place and branch out from there. “I’d like to do a good job of donating to one school first, then continue to expand to other schools, raise more money, and provide more services,” she said.
“The period movement in the United States was very inspiring and motivating to me. Even India has made progress,” Joyce said, adding that she wants to change the world one step at a time.
As the Stand TogetHer group says: “It‘s not a girl’s destiny to have to skip school because she can’t buy ‘luxury’ sanitary napkins, and it’s not a girl’s destiny to suffer from gynaecological problems because she can only use cheap paper.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- Why Asian women still suffer period stigma, and how a culture of openness could end taboos
- Warm hands, taste-changing periods: Japan’s women sushi chefs fight myths for place at table
- Lunar newsletter: Period poverty, transgender pageantry and a pandemic
This article Period poverty in China and how one group of girls aims to end it – a school at a time first appeared on South China Morning Post