HONG KONG – It started when a box of free sanitary pads appeared in the high school classroom in October.
Then a plastic container with pads was attached to the walls of four bathrooms at the University of Shanghai.
By Monday, boxes and bags of individually wrapped pillows were popping up in front of bathrooms in at least 338 schools and colleges across China.
Each carried a version of the same instructions: “Take one, then return one later. Stop the shame. “
The pads were part of a broader effort to increase access to a product that not all students can afford and to remove shame about a long-stigmatized natural bodily function, say organizers of a local campaign called Stand by Ona.
The campaign, founded by Jiang Jinjing, a women’s rights advocate, aims to raise the issue poverty in the period – what the United Nations describes as the financial struggle of low-income women and girls to afford menstrual products – in the foreground of the national conversation. Ms. Jiang, who was highlighted in March after mobilizing sanitary napkin deliveries to hospitals in Wuhan, China, during a coronavirus outbreak, launched an anti-poverty campaign this year.
In an interview published in September by the online magazine Shanghai Sixth tone, Ms. Jiang said she once believed that menstrual products were unavailable only in poor rural Chinese provinces, but she soon realized that the phenomenon was widespread.
“This is so-called female poverty,” said Ms. Jiang, better known by her last name Liang Yu. “When we talk about poverty, women’s needs become automatically invisible.” She denied the request for comment.
Her group raised $ 126,000 in October in a crowdfunding campaign to send inserts to 2,000 teenagers in rural areas and provide information on periods and sex education. The high school teacher was inspired by Ms. Jiang’s efforts and put a box of free sanitary napkins in her classroom, telling her students to take it and replace it later.
Ms. Jiang posted photos sent by an unknown teacher to Weibo, China’s social media platform. She encouraged others to follow their example, and the campaign around what she called a “mutual aid box” took off.
Pillow boxes began to appear at the entrances of women’s bathrooms in schools and colleges across the country. Students at the University of Political Science and Law in East China in Shanghai fastened boxes in front of four women’s bathrooms on campus.
Fiona Fei, a 23-year-old graduate student at Guangxi University in southern China, was inspired to hang zippered bags with cushions around campus bathrooms in October.
In a telephone interview Monday, she said patriarchal thinking and incomplete biology classes in schools have taught girls to see their bodily functions as indecent.
“A lot of people around me feel ashamed,” she said, “and that’s why we want to break through this shame together.”
The inability to afford menstrual products is common in many countries, and this inaccessibility is often complicated by social customs that see menstruation as a taboo topic.
Women and girls in Nepal were expelled from their homes to huts during their period. At least one or two women die each year in huts from exposure, animal bites, or smoke inhalation after a fire to stay warm during the Himalayan winters.
A study published in July by the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, found that nearly 70 percent of respondents said they tried to hide the sanitary pads they wore around them, and more than 61 percent used euphemisms for their period.
Although the Stand by Her campaign in China received support on social media, it was also criticized and ridiculed. Some said pillow boxes should be placed inside bathrooms to give people more privacy. In one widely reported incident, boxes are looking for handkerchiefs donations were placed in front of the men’s bathrooms at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, with rough references to masturbation.
But the campaign also found male supporters.
Conor Yu, a 22-year-old graduate student at Shanghai University of International Studies, said he never learned about menstruation at school, but that the feminist’s friends had an impact on paying attention. He set up boxes in front of the women’s bathrooms on campus and asked permission to put up information posters in the library, but that request was denied.
The topic of the period has become less taboo in China in recent years.
In 2016, Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui broke down barriers with an interview by the pool in which she revealed she had menstruated before the race.
There has been poverty this summer renewed control in China, because an unidentified cartridge that was not individually wrapped was put up for sale by an unidentified seller on an e-commerce platform. Some have wondered why anyone could buy such potentially unhygienic pads. Two online shoppers have suggested they bought stock because they can’t afford more expensive products.
In October, a 17-year-old girl in Chengdu raised nearly $ 200,000 in an online campaign to send an insert to two high schools in Liangshan, a region in southwestern Sichuan province that has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
Ms. Jiang, founder of Stand by Her, said in an online post: “The process of loud and frequent discussions will remove the stigma from menstruation. This will free thousands of women who are ashamed of it. “
She noted that “pads” and “periods,” once taboo words, are more often discussed in the country.
“This is already a great discovery and a turning point in women’s history,” she said.
Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong, and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei, Taiwan. Elsie Chen contributed to the reporting from Seoul, South Korea.