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FEATURE/Stamping out stigma: Taiwanese activist's mission to normalize periods

06/01/2024 08:57 PM
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Founder of With Red Vivi Lin. Lin was recently selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in the Social Impact category. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024
Founder of With Red Vivi Lin. Lin was recently selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in the Social Impact category. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024

By Bernadette Hsiao, CNA staff writer

[Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series for Menstrual Hygiene Day 2024, looking at the effort of Taiwanese NGOs in advocating for period equity, both at a national and international level. Read part 2 here.]

Twenty-six-year-old Ofelia Chang (張孟潔) vividly recalls her elementary school days, when she had to hide her sanitary pads from boys who would mock her. "I had to hide when I was taking out a sanitary pad because boys would make fun of me if they saw it," the paralegal said.

Vanny Lu (呂庭儀), a 25-year-old business development specialist, also felt like she had to hide her sanitary pads while growing up. "Once a pad fell out of my pocket, someone picked it up and secretly handed it back to me."

Recognizing the need to change this narrative, Vivi Lin founded the NGO "With Red" in 2019 to advocate for period equity and end period poverty and stigma in Taiwan. The organization's initiatives, including the "50/100 Menstrual Education Program," aim to educate and empower individuals about menstruation.

"All our actions are evidence-based advocacy. We begin by understanding the current situation, then conducting independent research before launching initiatives," Lin said.

I don't know where to start

Behind the 50/100 program is the idea, "Even though 50 percent of people will experience menstruation, it is a physiological phenomenon that 100 percent of people should understand."

The reality of periods is not really delved into at school, despite being included in the curriculum, Lin noted.

"At my school, girls and boys were separated during the period talks, and only girls were taught about it," Chang told CNA. "But I think everyone should know about periods."

Lu, the business development specialist, recalled her first conversation about periods with her mother.

"My mom got me a children's book about the human body and periods and read it with me, so that's how I got to learn about periods," Lu said. "I think maybe schools can do more."

Lin told CNA in a recent interview that many teachers she and her NGO staff spoke to wanted to discuss periods with their students, but "didn't know where to start," partly due to "a lack of educational materials."

With Red thus started developing educational materials and holding teaching demonstration sessions in schools.

With Red staff talks to students during a teaching demonstration session of the 50/100 program at Dingpu Elementary School in Hsinchu on Nov. 14, 2023. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024
With Red staff talks to students during a teaching demonstration session of the 50/100 program at Dingpu Elementary School in Hsinchu on Nov. 14, 2023. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024

"As awareness and understanding around what teaching about the menstrual cycle entails at that time was limited, we started visiting school after school to find teachers willing to let us talk to their students."

Through word of mouth, more teachers built up awareness of the importance of menstruation education, she said, noting society's increasing openness to discussing it.

"But we also realized there was no way we could go to every class in Taiwan and teach every student about periods," Lin said, explaining that With Red decided to pivot and start providing training for teachers, given "they are frontline workers in the education scene."

According to With Red's 2022-2023 report, the 50/100 program and relevant talks have reached over 55,300 students.

The deity said yes

One question often asked by students is whether women can visit temples during their periods. This prompted With Red to visit famous temples in a bid to find out.

They were initially hit with refusals, "which made us want to know more because why do people avoid talking about periods? Why is menstruation stigmatized? Where does this come from?"

A turning point was when the Xiahai City God Temple opened its door for discussion. Temple Manager Chen Wen-wen (陳文文) said "Of course people can visit temples when on their periods, menstruation is a normal thing."

On Menstrual Hygiene Day in 2022, With Red collaborated with the temple to wash its courtyard, symbolizing the "washing away of menstruation stigma."

Xiahai City God Temple Manager Chen Wen-wen (left) washes the temple courtyard during a collaborative event with With Red on May 28, 2022. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024
Xiahai City God Temple Manager Chen Wen-wen (left) washes the temple courtyard during a collaborative event with With Red on May 28, 2022. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024

This precedent led to more temples coming forward. Encouraged, With Red began field studies to understand the taboo's root cause. They visited temples and consulted folklore experts throughout the year, and Lin said the visit to Longshan Temple in Taoyuan left a particularly deep impression on them.

As those working in the temple did not know the taboo's origin, they suggested With Red staff participate in a ritual where followers ask for guidance from a deity which is relayed through an intermediary.

Lin explained that the deity said "yes" to women visiting temples during their periods, and also conveyed the belief that the taboo is because of "people restricting themselves."

She added that it is often people setting boundaries that subsequently restrict them. "The fear spreads over time and turns into awkwardness and shamefulness."

Period friendly spaces

With Red integrated several projects to create a "period-friendly map," where people can find shops providing free sanitary products or clothing for those caught short who need to change.

"These places have a period-friendly emblem outside so passersby can see it easily. It's like putting up a sign saying you accept LinePay," Lin said.

A staff member of a store in Zhongyuan Night Market sticks a “period-friendly space” emblem on the door on Oct. 24, 2023. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024
A staff member of a store in Zhongyuan Night Market sticks a “period-friendly space” emblem on the door on Oct. 24, 2023. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024

With Red hopes to extend period-friendly spaces in Taiwan and help everyone see menstruation as a normal experience for half the population.

As of May 2024, the map had been used over 1 million times.

Period Museum

Lin noted that opposition to menstrual equity often stems from misunderstanding or unfamiliarity, and they thought, "having a physical building is a good way of raising awareness and ensuring the issue is not overlooked."

The world's only period museum was thus established in 2022 in Taipei's Datong District.

The interior of the period museum. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024
The interior of the period museum. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024

Explaining the meaning behind the interior that resembles a uterus, Lin said, "Menstruation is a physiological phenomenon closely connected to the lives of biological women and we hope (by stepping into the museum) everyone can return to their first home, the womb, and engage in self-reflection."

"We have a library in the museum full of books about menstruation, and we often see parents reading with their kids, teaching them about it."

Located in a traditional and close-knit community, the museum attracted lots of attention during its construction, and quite a few residents were initially skeptical.

"There was this group of elderly women who sent the bravest among them to see if we were bad people, but after her visit, she told her friends we seemed kind and nice," Lin said, adding that the woman returned later on with all her friends for a visit.

Furthermore, shops in the neighborhood help advertise the museum by recommending it to their customers.

Volunteers pack menstrual products at the period museum on Nov. 29, 2023. With Red provides free menstrual products for those in need. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024
Volunteers pack menstrual products at the period museum on Nov. 29, 2023. With Red provides free menstrual products for those in need. Photo courtesy of With Red June 1, 2024

As well as attracting those from the close-knit community, lots of visitors also travel from further afield in Taiwan.

"There are also tourists who visit Taiwan specifically for the museum," she added.

The work continues

Starting in August 2023, Taiwan mandated the provision of free sanitary products in schools. Almost a year later, With Red is carrying out a survey to gauge the policy's impact.

The hope is that the data will help the government create a more inclusive and period-friendly environment, Lin said.

Initiatives launched by With Red aim to solve problems, and Lin said they are plowing all their energy into working toward the services they provide becoming redundant.

"Our ultimate goal is not to be needed anymore," she explained.

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