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Period poverty under scrutiny in Japan as women campaign to reduce one-sided cost burden

Various types of feminine hygiene products are lined up in a store in Tokyo on Feb. 5, 2021. (Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

TOKYO -- Recently, we've been coming across more and more stories about menstruation. A Japanese manga on the subject, "Seiri-chan," or Ms. Period, became a hit and was made into a 2019 movie starring popular actors. TV personalities even talk cheerfully about menstruation on special TV shows.

    But at the same time, there are reportedly people who cannot afford the high cost of feminine hygiene products, despite them being an absolute essential for women who menstruate. The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to one organization working to ease the burden of buying sanitary products, and heard about the messages they received from desperate people struggling under the current situation.

    But first let's start with the basics. Menstruation generally occurs monthly in women from about their teens to their 50s, during which menstrual discharge including blood is expelled from the body for about five days. When menstruating, sanitary products including pads that attach to underwear are essential. These pads are generally changed every two to three hours and then thrown away and cost only tens of yen each. But they have to be constantly bought in bulk.

    This provided photo shows Ayumi Taniguchi, center, Minori Fukui, left, and other members of "#menstruation for everyone" holding sanitary products. (Photo courtesy of #menstruation for everyone)

    Nowadays, more and more people are speaking up about the economic burden imposed by women's sanitary products. The online petition site is running a campaign called "Reduce the tax rate for menstrual products!" The campaign page reads: "Menstrual products are by no means luxury items. It is a necessity for many to learn, work, live, and chase their dreams in society." So far, it has gathered more than 44,000 signatures.

    The comments that accompanied those signatures were filled with desperation: "I live alone and don't have a lot of money, so when I get my period, I have a lot of trouble financially, physically and mentally," one read. Another wrote, "Without sanitary products, I would be dripping blood, so they are a life necessity."

    The petition was launched in October 2019, when the consumption tax on goods including sanitary products was raised to 10%. It was started by Ayumi Taniguchi, 22, who is now co-chair of the voluntary group "#menstruation for everyone." At the time she was a senior at International Christian University, and was inspired to act by an interview she did for her graduation thesis on menstruation.

    Half of the 10 friends she interviewed mentioned the economic burden it exerts, and she felt she was not alone in her discomfort.

    Around then, Taniguchi recalled a story she heard from her grandmother. About 60 years ago, when her grandmother first came to Tokyo from the countryside, she had to cut her living expenses at the end of the month and choose between bread for breakfast or sanitary products. The shocking story stayed with Taniguchi, and she said it felt strange that the suffering of her grandmother's time persisted even today, and she decided to make herself heard.

    The website for a signature campaign calling for a reduction in the economic burden imposed by menstrual products is seen in this partially altered image. (Mainichi)

    On the website calling for signatures, the financial burden is laid out in detail. If we assume that the monthly cost of menstrual products is 1,000 yen (about $9.56), the total expenditure due to menstruation -- including tax at 10% -- is "nearly 500,000 yen (about $4,780) over a lifetime."

    From October 2020, Taniguchi has also been collecting opinions on the economic stress it causes. Retailer Muji released its first sanitary pads at 399 yen (about $3.82) including tax for a pack of 10, and the product's simple packaging trended on Twitter. But some people asked for the price to be lower. Seeing this, Taniguchi launched a free-response questionnaire online, which received more than 200 responses in three days.

    "I'm really broke and I'm doing a lot of economizing when I use sanitary pads. I actually want to change to a new pad every hour or two, but I have to use the same one for five or six hours to save money." or "I have to be stingy and use one nighttime pad for the whole day, which makes things smell bad and itch."

    One respondent said that to reduce sanitary pad consumption, they "put wrapped toilet paper on the pad." If replaced improperly, the pads can be harmful to people's health, and are not items to be "saved."

    Some of the testimonies showed that people don't have sufficient access to feminine hygiene products due to family circumstances. Respondents wrote of their past experiences, "It was hard when I was in elementary and junior high school, when I didn't have any allowance and there was no one to buy them for me," or, "I couldn't tell my parents about my period so they wouldn't buy sanitary pads for me."

    Minori Fukui, 23, co-chair of the group, said, "Although menstruation is a physical phenomenon, from these desperate voices we realized that it is affected by social issues such as wage disparity."

    In addition to collecting signatures and conducting questionnaires, the group is also working on spreading information on YouTube and holding online discussions with university students with the aim of distributing free sanitary products at universities. Eventually, they hope to make sanitary products tax-free and distribute them free of charge in a wide range of facilities.

    In other countries, "period poverty" is attracting attention, and there are movements to reduce sanitary products' economic burden. In November 2020, Scotland in the U.K. became the first country in the world to legislate the free provision of sanitary products, and they will be made available at schools and public facilities at no cost. Additionally, the U.K. has made the purchase of sanitary products tax-free since January 2021, and Canada and Australia have also abolished taxation.

    Hikaru Tanaka, a historical sociologist who has authored several books including "Social History of Sanitary Goods," said, "Compared to Europe and the United States, sanitary products are still less talked about in Japan, and the reality of period poverty is not well known."

    In the meantime, the spread of the coronavirus is hitting the lives of women, many of whom have traditionally had unstable jobs.

    "There are definitely people shouldering a heavy burden amid the coronavirus pandemic. If they can't buy sanitary products, it will interfere with their work and studies and may push them further into poverty," Tanaka said.

    In Japan, menstruation has long been considered a taboo subject. In the past few years, attention has been drawn to products and services related to menstruation and pregnancy called "femtech," a term coined by combining "female" and "technology," but they are not yet understood by society as a whole.

    "If you have heavy menstrual discharge, there are ways to control it with insurance-covered medical treatments such as taking low-dose pills or using an intrauterine system to lighten your period. However, at present, sex education is lacking for men and women, and the necessary information is not reaching them," Tanaka said.

    She added, "It is difficult to talk about the poverty of menstruation, and the subject has been neglected. In particular, when it comes to teenagers, the issue is considered a domestic problem, and it is difficult to see the hardships they face even when they don't have access to sanitary products. To try to solve the problem, it must be shared with society."

    (Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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