Through modernization and industrialization, women have started menstruating at an earlier age while getting married at a later age. In their life, the average woman experiences about forty years of monthly menstrual cycles.
However, there has been a lack of awareness regarding the necessity for a discussion about what kind of effects a prolonged menstrual life and the use of sanitary pads might have on the woman’s body.
In our grandmothers’ generation, they had to put up with the inconvenience of having to boil cotton non- disposable sanitary napkins every time they used them, as well as the discomfort of usage, and the constant worry that the napkin would show through.
For female baby boomers, memories related to the sanitary napkin are probably ones of embarrassment, shame, or even just hassle.
Given such a social environment, nobody expected the sanitary product problem to become a social issue in Korea.
When a Women’s Environmental Network announced in March this year that some of the sanitary pads in the market (Lilian sanitary pad) contain harmful substances that cause health risks such as irregular menstrual cycles, the issue of the safety of sanitary pads became a great controversy.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, which carried out the first round of inspections announced on Sept. 28, that “the levels of the substances are not high enough to be harmful to the human body” and that “there will not be any problems even with lifetime use.”
However, in addition to the women’s health advocacy group, many women have also voiced their experiences of suffering from disposable sanitary pad usage, leading to a general mistrust in the safety of sanitary pads.
“Until when do I have to keep using these sanitary pads that I have been using?” The fact that such doubts have started to spread among women seems to be a natural change that was bound to happen.
The formation of the mentality to take one’s health into one’s own hands can also be seen as a systematic move to reduce the risks in the society of “manufactured risks” as predicted by Anthony Giddens.
Handmade cotton sanitary pads Lee Ji-eun and participants at the workshop she is running . Photo courtesy Lee Ji-eun
Maybe, has Lee Ji-eun already predicted such changes?
Active as an “eco-friendly missionary”, or a “pioneer of alternative living culture”, she explored how we can bring changes to the woman’s body and the environment with handmade cotton sanitary pads in her 2009 book, “Handmade Sanitary Pads.”
Amid the sanitary pad scare in Korea, She has been extremely busy recently, holding seminars and workshops here and there on “Making an alternative sanitary pad that takes care of my body,” in Seoul and many other local areas.
What are the reactions of the participants at the workshops?
One of the female participants who came with her middle-school daughter said that her daughter will start being more concerned about practical ways required to take care of her own body through this experience. A male participant commented that it had been a good opportunity to understand what women have to worry about to take care of their own bodies.
You have been donating sanitary napkins to women in Nepal. Tell us about how it started.
It started when we made 640 sanitary napkins and donated them to the women living in impoverished mountainous areas affected by the Nepal earthquake in April 2015. It was Choi Seong-mun who, along with people gathered through social media, first started producing cotton sanitary pads and sending them to Nepal. When I heard about this, I joined the group since I was running a needlework workshop.
We sent finished products as well as the raw fabric and instruction manuals so that the Nepali locals will also be able to make the pads themselves. Our hearts felt heavy when we heard things like “we were in desperation because there was no place to ask about it even though we needed it.”
We are also sponsoring sanitary pads to give to needy students in Korea as well as Nepal and Cambodia. People joining us in this charity usually either send us the raw material, or they make a donation. I think it’s like a chain of kindness and solidarity.
Nepali teenagers who are making their own sanitary pads using fabrics and manuals sent by Lee Ji-eun. Photo courtesy Lee Ji-eun
Disposable sanitary pads continue to be a source of controversy. What are your views on it? Although it started with the problem of sanitary pads, the important question should be how women should take their health into their own hands? How is the disposable sanitary pad affecting the environment? It is directly linked to the question of what are the living culture alternatives that can be applied in our daily lives? This is a time that we need to seriously ponder about such alternatives.
I have been operating a sewing workshop for ten years and pondered over these problems through needlework. I share with others about the ways you can use to take care of our health and the environment through workshops and lectures about creating handmade sanitary pads. I want to spread the methods that can be easily followed by anyone who sets their mind to it.
Even though the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has announced that disposable sanitary pads are safe enough to use, there have been many cases of women suffering from side effects such as bacterial infections, menstrual cramps, and irregular menstrual cycles. It seems to be the price we have to pay in exchange for convenience.
You organize monthly workshops for creating handmade sanitary napkins. What do you wish to convey through these workshops?
Try imagining the scene of mother and daughter trying their hands at making a cotton sanitary pad together. Sharing with each other about what they did not know about each other’s bodies, and how our bodies react to the transition from disposable sanitary pads that contain potential chemical substances to handmade cotton sanitary pads. Through this, I hope that the mentality about how we can take care of our own health can be changed. The number of male participants has also been increasing, and it raises their understanding of women.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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