HONG KONG – It started when a single box of free sanitary napkins appeared in a middle school classroom in October.
Then a plastic container with pads was attached to the walls of four bathrooms at a university in Shanghai.
By Monday, boxes and bags with individually wrapped documents had appeared in front of the bathrooms in at least 338 schools and universities across China.
Everyone carried a version of the same instructions: “Take one and put it back later. Stop shaming yourself. "
The pads were part of a wider effort to improve access to a product that not all students can afford and to remove the shame of a natural body function that has long been stigmatized, according to organizers of a grassroots campaign called Stand by your.
The campaign was founded by Jiang Jinjing, a women's rights advocate, and aims to bring the issue of time poverty – what the United Nations calls a financial struggle for low-income women and girls to afford menstrual products – to the fore of the national conversation. Ms. Jiang, who gained prominence in March after mobilizing supplies of sanitary towels to hospitals in Wuhan, China during the coronavirus outbreak, launched the campaign to fight poverty for the period this year.
In an interview published by the Shanghai online magazine Sixth Tone in September, Ms. Jiang said she used to believe that menstrual products were only inaccessible in impoverished rural Chinese provinces, but soon discovered the phenomenon was widespread .
"This is what is known as women's poverty," said Ms. Jiang, who is better known by her pen name, Liang Yu. "When we talk about poverty, women's needs automatically become invisible." She declined a request for comment.
Her group raised $ 126,000 in a crowdfunding campaign in October to send pads to 2,000 teenagers in rural areas, providing information on periods and sex education. A middle school teacher took inspiration from Ms. Jiang's efforts and put a box of free sanitary towels in her classroom where she told students to take one and replace it later.
Ms. Jiang posted photos posted by the unidentified teacher on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. She encouraged others to follow suit, and the campaign around what she referred to as "boxes for mutual aid" began.
Boxes of pads appeared at the entrances to women's baths in schools and colleges across the country. Students from Shanghai East China University of Political Science and Law fastened boxes in front of four women's baths on campus.
Fiona Fei, a 23-year-old graduate student at Guangxi University in southern China, was inspired to hang zippered and cushioned bags around campus bathrooms in October.
In a phone interview on Monday, she said that patriarchal thinking and incomplete biology classes in schools taught girls to view their bodily functions as indecent.
"A lot of people around me are ashamed," she said, "and that's why we want to break through this shame together."
The inability to afford menstrual products is common in many countries, and this inaccessibility is often exacerbated by social mores that consider menstruation a taboo subject.
Women and girls in Nepal were banished from their homes to huts during their time. At least one or two women die in the huts each year from exposure, animal bites, or inhalation of smoke after making fires to keep warm.
A study published in July by the Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing found that nearly 70 percent of respondents said they hid the sanitary towels they were carrying, and more than 61 percent used euphemisms for their periods.
Although the "Stand by Her" campaign received social media support in China, it was also criticized and ridiculed. Some said the boxes with pads should be placed in bathrooms to give people more privacy. In a widespread incident, boxes asking for tissue paper donations were placed in front of men's bathrooms at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing with crude references to masturbation.
But the campaign also found male supporters.
Conor Yu, a 22-year-old doctoral student at Shanghai International Studies University, said he never learned about menstruation in school but was influenced by feminist friends to pay attention. He placed boxes in front of the women's bathrooms on campus and asked for permission to post informational posters in the library, but that request was denied.
The topic of periods has become less taboo in China in recent years.
In 2016, Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui broke the barriers with an interview by the pool in which she revealed that she had reached her pre-race period.
Poverty in China came under renewed scrutiny this summer as cheap, unbranded pods that weren't individually wrapped were put up for sale on an e-commerce platform by an unidentified seller. Some people wondered why anyone could buy such possibly unsanitary pads. Two online shoppers suggested they bought the supplies because they couldn't afford more expensive products.
In October, a 17-year-old girl in Chengdu raised almost $ 200,000 in an online campaign to send pads to two high schools in Liangshan, a region in southwest Sichuan Province that has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
Ms. Jiang, the founder of Stand by Her, said in an online post, “The process of louder and more frequent discussion will remove the stigma of menstruation. This will free thousands of women who are ashamed of it. "
She noted that "pads" and "periods", once taboo words, were discussed more frequently in the country.
"This is already a major breakthrough and milestone," she said.
Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei, Taiwan. Elsie Chen reported from Seoul, South Korea.