Menstruation is a funny thing. On the one hand, periods are a natural part of life. On the other, they are usually cloaked in euphemism.
Consider the following commercial: A woman displays a feminine hygiene product. She says “flow” instead of “blood,” and a blue liquid is used instead of a red liquid to demonstrate how efficient the product is at keeping the woman “clean.” The imagery and language used to address menstruation reflect and perpetuate a negative perception of periods as a dirty, unhygienic function. In short, a hassle.
That’s how Claire Lin (林念慈), 31, felt about her period before she ditched her tampons and disposable pads and tried more sustainable alternatives.
“I used to work like crazy. When my period came, I didn’t rest. I took painkillers and kept working. I felt psychological distance from my menstruation,” she says.
Lin is the founder of Dharti Mata Sustainable Workshop (棉樂悅事工坊), a studio in a Nepalese village that manufactures and provides affordable cloth menstrual pads for local women. The studio is inspired by the stories of Nepalese women.
In 2005, Lin joined the Vision Youth Action (願景青年行動網協會), a NGO that brings Taiwanese volunteers to countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines and Mongolia.
Sent off to manage projects in Nepal in 2009, Lin soon learned of the taboos women face when menstruating. In Nepalese society, where menstruation is considered impure, periods aren’t just an awkward conversation topic, but also come with harsh stigmas. For example, since menstrual blood is deemed dirty, women and girls use old, sometimes soiled rags as menstrual pads instead of clean ones, and consequently develop infections, according to Lin.
Chhaupadi, a traditional practice prevalent in Nepal’s western region, forbids women from participating in family activities during menstruation. In some cases, they are kept out of the house and forced to live in separate sheds. “Because these villages are located in remote mountains, sometimes you even read news about women [who are confined to sheds] being eaten by tigers,” Lin says.
After witnessing the hardship facing Nepalese women, Lin and other volunteers visited several villages to hold workshops about menstruation education, share experiences and build dialogue through drama activities and theater games, as well as offer a friendly environment for local women to talk about their periods and bodies.
“A 50-year-old woman shared her first period experience in one of the workshops. She was 12. She was taken to a shed without any explanation. Frightened and confused, she kept crying and felt she was being punished for doing something wrong.” Lin recalls. “Her fear of her own period lingered long after she became a mother.”
In an effort to improve the health of local women, Lin read up on Taiwanese blogs such as Pu Pu Tieh Hsin (布布貼心), which teaches visitors how to make and use sustainable pads, studied and learned the methods and then taught villagers.
Lin left Vision Youth Action in 2012 to establish her own studio at an organic farm in Patalekhet, Nepal, where some 25 farmers — mostly women — gather regularly to sell their products. Lin says that the majority of farmers in Nepal are women because men work laboring jobs in neighboring countries.
Currently, Dharti Mata Sustainable Workshop employs two Nepalese women and is managed by a Japanese volunteer. The pads are sold at a farmers’ market in Kathmandu, mostly to NGO workers and middle-class urbanites, and profits allow the studio to provide affordable pads to local villagers.