To fight ‘period shame,’ women in China demand that trains sell tampons

by | Nov 23, 2022 | Top Stories

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After witnessing the social media debate about whether to sell sanitary pads on trains, university student Wendy Kou made posters about fighting “period shame” and hung them around her campus.

Wendy Kou

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Wendy Kou

When Wendy Kou read the headline on a Chinese social media platform about whether sanitary pads should be sold on railways, she frowned. The debate was heated. Some felt it provided a basic women’s health service, while others vehemently opposed it as a private matter and felt that women should come to trains prepared. “I found the request totally normal. It is surprising to see that so many people are against it and raising it to the level of bigger issues,” she told NPR by phone from Chongqing city, where she currently attends university. For her, the question should not even be asked. But for many people in China, a country that ranks 107 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Gender Gap Index, it is still considered embarrassing to openly discuss menstruation or to take out sanitary pads in public. “Private items such as sanitary pads are not sold on railways, and passengers need to bring them by themselves,” a customer service representative of China Railway, the state-owned railroad operator, replied via social media when a female passenger requested that pads be sold on trains.

But who decides what is private? Kou decided to speak up. Majoring in visual design, she drew up a series of posters about menstruation and posted them around her university’s campus. “I think that ‘period’ shouldn’t be a shameful word for women to speak out in public,” she said. One of her inspirations comes from the common experience of buying sanitary pads in China: The checker always wraps them in a black plastic bag before handing them back to customers, assuming it is embarrassing to be seen with them. “It is like an unsaid convention. So, why not design a transparent plastic bag, with ‘NO PERIOD SHAME’ [printed] on it?” Kou said.

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University student Wendy Kou, who found the request to sell sanitary pads on trains “totally normal,” created posters as a way to help fight the stigma against menstruation and spread them around her school.

Wendy Kou

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Wendy Kou

A male relationship influencer with nearly 1.3 million followers on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, doesn’t think the discussion has anything to do with period shame. “Sanitary pads are not emergency supplies, unlike Band-Aids, disinfectants, or quick-acting heart relievers. Therefore, since it is a commodity, the cost must be considered,” he posted, opposing the idea of selling pads. “Don’t be a giant baby, whether it is provided or not by the railways, you should learn to plan ahead and be independent,” he added. Another tech influencer put it more directly. “Railways only provide food, they are not grocery stores,” he wrote on Weibo. “Are you asking railways to sell sanitary pads together with peanuts and beers in the dining car?” He showed his embarrassment by using a facepalm emoji. The post was liked 17,000 times.
For Zudy Zheng, co-founder of Period Pride, mainland China’s first social innovation group focusing on menstruation health and hygiene, the driving force behind this debate is gender inequality. “We are not asking for free pads on trains, but a commercial sale of these products, as meals and poker cards are all being sold on trains,” Zheng said. “The society is operating according to a default standard set up by men, so it is difficult to understand women’s needs.” Calling for pads as an essen …

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