“I was in Junior Secondary School at the time, and I couldn’t talk about it with my parents.” Jeni Karay, Papuan Influencer. Jeni is not alone: a 2017 health study in Indonesia found that one in five girls never talk about menstruation before they get their period.
Whilst the West is busy busting period taboos, Southeast Asia remains caught in a web of misconceptions. In the Philippines, women were heavily repressed during the Spanish colonization. Maria Clara, heroine of José Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tángere, is considered the country’s national heroine and has since become a byword for the traditional, feminine ideal. Deferent, timid and conservative, she certainly wouldn’t approve of talking about periods or using tampons – especially when the country also subscribes to the belief that tampons induce hymen destruction.
Whilst other countries in Southeast Asia such as Vietnam and Cambodia share these views on tampons, the plot thickens: if only married women can use tampons, and they have become accustomed to pads, they tend to keep it that way. This means demand for tampons are low, and prices are high. Pad producers have been known to ride on this wave in order to stifle competition, promoting unhealthy beliefs about alternative forms of protection or lobbying against the sale of tampons.
But it’s not all about tampons. In Malaysia and Indonesia, Islamic practices prohibit menstruating people from performing ritual prayers. Whilst this alone risks exacerbating feelings of shame around the topic and may discourage open conversation, it has also led to more harmful practices. This year, Malaysians have started campaigning against “period spot checks” that occur in boarding schools. Girls accused of trying to ‘skip daily prayers’ are demanded for “proof of menstruation”, often made to show blood-soaked sanitary pads, swab their vaginas with cotton buds, tissues or fingers or even have a teacher, warden or school prefect pat them down in the groin area to check if they are wearing a sanitary pad. These practices ensure stigmas around periods take root at an early age – making them almost impossible to reframe in later life.
Yet with the help of motivated individuals, the menstruation conversation in SEA is changing. In Singapore, app-based startup Ease Healthcare is making it simpler, more convenient and more pleasant for women to access emergency contraception, STI tests, birth control and pregnancy tests, without having to visit the doctor in person. Their social channels discuss related subjects in a safe, approachable manner.
In Papua, Unicef is increasing the usage of period app Oky by working with influencers such as Jeni to spread the word. The app helps people who menstruate “to feel more confident about their period and make it a more enjoyable experience!” – offering important menstrual hygiene information and the opportunity for people with periods to get to know their body better.
As such initiatives gather momentum, we can be sure that conversation will become more open and transparent. The key is to make sure influencers and others on social media open the right conversation, shutting down harmful myths and rumours that have been perpetuated for centuries.
Written by Emily Sheen, The Soko Edit