The Korea Herald

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Korea faces calls for universal free menstrual products amid low birthrate

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : May 26, 2023 - 14:55

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A women holding periods calendar for checking menstruation days. (123rf) A women holding periods calendar for checking menstruation days. (123rf)

South Korea is facing calls for universal provision of free period products, like menstrual pads or tampons, for young Korean women, as the nation is already experiencing the world's lowest fertility rate.

Rep. Jang Hye-young of the progressive minority Justice Party told reporters on Friday at the National Assembly that she was working to propose a revision of the Youth Welfare Support Act to allow all women aged 9 to 24 to have free access to period products. Jang is looking for more lawmakers' support to jointly propose the revision, according to Jang's office.

"Having access to safe and hygienic menstruation management must be recognized as all women's rights, but Korea has long been notorious for poor actions to ensure this human rights issue," Jang said, two days before the world recognizes Menstrual Hygiene Day on Sunday.

The high price of menstrual products has long been a headache to Koreans. Sanitary pads sold here are nearly 40 percent more expensive than the global average, according to data unveiled by the Korean Women's Environmental Network on Thursday.

Korea began to recognize a lack of universal menstrual hygiene as a social problem in 2016, after stories of impoverished girls who could not afford new period products went viral. An online inquiry -- by an anonymous person who identified herself as a girl without the money to buy sanitary pads -- about whether toilet paper could be a suitable replacement was followed with similar stories of girls who had to miss classes and had used towels or shoe insoles during their time of the month.

Their circulating stories prompted the passage of a law in 2021 to provide free access to period products to those in poverty.

According to Jang, only 173,000 have benefited from the law. That accounted for 4.4 percent of women aged 9 to 24, and 70 percent of those eligible for free products. Jang says that her new bill will be critical in tackling a blind spot in government aid for free access to period products.

The calls were echoed with a statement from the Korean Women Lawyers Association on Thursday, which urged the country to universally offer menstrual products, calling it a shortcut to solving the low birthrate the country is suffering -- 0.78 child per woman as of 2022.

Universal access to such products can serve as a "declaration that the government endorses the basic function and the role of maternity protection," eventually thwarting stigmatization and discrimination against women in menstrual periods, added the women's rights advocacy group.

Scotland in 2022 proclaimed to be the world's first country to have made period products available for free to anyone.