By Andray Abrahamian
Which North Korean brands of sanitary pads are the best? Where can I buy them? What other products are available for next time I’m traveling around the North Korean countryside? How expensive are they?
These are questions you may not have asked yourself. But for North Korean women these are crucial questions that can define opportunities to earn money, to travel, and to feel productive and well.
Coreana Connect has spent several months researching North Korean period products and has turned the findings into a consumer report, with an English version and both a Northern and Southern edition, also.
Feminine hygiene products in North Korea are best described as available but not accessible. The majority of North Korean women use homemade reusable cloth pads, most typically made of gauze or old cloth. Still, some can afford modern products and will spend the money, particularly if they have to be out and about. Various North Korean companies compete for these consumers, who make choices based on price and quality. No tampons, cups or reusable period panties are made in North Korea. Manufactured period products include only one category: pads.
Coreana Connect collected a handful of the most common made-in-DPRK brands, as well as a couple Chinese imported brands. We sent them to a professional paper and textile laboratory to test for two key characteristics: Absorption Before Leakage (ABL) and Multiple Acquisition Time (MAT). The first is a measure of how much liquid a pad can hold before leaking; the latter measures how quickly liquid is absorbed and dried.
We then distributed samples of one of the menstrual hygiene products to a panel of young women, who completed a survey and rated the products in a real-world setting.
Overall, we found that DPRK-produced pads are most comparable to thin or day-use pads sold in western markets. The quality was, frankly, higher than we expected; the variety of brands available was also surprising. The greatest shortcoming of DPRK-produced pads appears to be insufficient adhesive on the back of the pad, leading the pad to shift out of position, causing staining.
We’ll leave the rest of the exciting conclusions for when you download the consumer report for yourself. But this project has made us think about menstruation in North Korea as connected to a number of important issues on which North Korea and the international community could potentially collaborate.
As everywhere, North Korean girls and women need effective and affordable menstrual health products. This is even more true in a resource-scarce society where women are primary earners for many households. Managing periods means having the freedom to travel and work.
Pads are virtually the only manufactured menstrual health product available in the DPRK, but are costly: most brands are roughly equivalent to half a kilogram of rice. They are unfortunately considered a luxury. Projects that lower product costs would be a boon to these women, improving a number of basic human rights.
There is social stigma around periods, but part of this is related to lack of information and of educational resources on the issue. Getting pamphlets into schools, hospitals and workplaces could be hugely beneficial. Coreana Connect was only able to find published materials on periods targeting medical professionals. Education could also include information about alternative, money-saving, sustainable products.
This is still a learning process for us at Coreana Connect, and we’re happy to take advice and input as we consider the best practices and strategies for improving the lives of women and girls in the DPRK.
Andray Abrahamian is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and Visiting Scholar at George Mason University Korea and Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photos from Coreana Connect and Marcelo Druck’s photostream on flickr Creative Comomons.