The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) has released its report on the state of menstrual health of women in North Korea. The full text of the report can be downloaded via the following link:
Some of the main issues explored by NKDB have been summarized below.
Issues associated with menstrual health of North Korean women
There are several issues to which we would like to bring the attention of the international society:
Lack of proper (or any) sexual and menstrual education
Deeply rooted negative perception of menstruation
Lack of adequate sanitary facilities/bad hygiene
Difficult access to affordable sanitary pads (disposable or cloth)
Inadequate medical care associated with women’s menstrual health
Through its study NKDB revealed that although more than 60% of the North Korean women interviewed in this project indicated that they have had classes on women’s anatomy and health, when asked in detail about the content of these classes it was revealed that such programs provided little to no explanation regarding menstruation, its cause and the ways in which women can tend to their hygiene when they are on their period. Men were excluded from such classes altogether, which further worsens the situation of women in North Korea given the fact that the majority of people in policy-making posts in North Korea are men, including people in the Ministry of Public Health, who are responsible for designing health policies in the DPRK.
Due to the lack of education and the persistent overall ignorance and prejudice about menstruation women avoid talking about it, even with close relatives such as their mothers or sisters. Some women reported that they thought that they are sick when they got their first period, and in some cases they were even told so by their mothers/grandmothers. The negative notion associated with menstruation prevents women in North Korea from seeking medical care for issues related to their period, band also makes it very difficult for them to be alleviated from their work/training duties when they go to work/do their military service.
The insufficient hygienic conditions of sanitary facilities in North Korea pose not just an inconvenience but also threaten the health of menstruating women. Outhouses are shared by multiple households in most cities/rural areas of the country with the exception of the central parts of the capital and bigger cities. Almost 80% of the North Korean women indicated that the sanitary conditions in outhouses and restrooms were highly inadequate. Some of the problems include hazardously unsanitary restrooms, and lack of wash basins, toilet paper and proper water supply.
Most of the women in North Korea make their own sanitary pads from gauze cloth, followed by women who use disposable sanitary pads and women who resorted to using old rags or paper as an absorbent during their menstruation. Pads can be bought at the markets in North Korea. The ready-made gauze sanitary pads cost about 250 KPW to 3,000 KPW each, while a pack of 10 disposable sanitary pads is about 2,500 KPW but can also cost up to 10,000 KPW. For reference the average salary in North Korea is 3,000 KPW and the price of 1 kg of rice is usually about 5,000 KPW. Having this in mind it is easy to see how expensive are sanitary pads in North Korea and how big of a financial burden their cost poses for North Korean women. Additionally in places such as detention facilities sanitary pads are not provided to female prisoners and they are only able to obtain these from family visitations. Even in state organs such as the Korean People’s Army, where disposable sanitary pads are actually provided to female soldiers, women are not able to use the number of pads that they need as they are forced to put some on the side in order to trade them for food or money later.
Medical care associated with menstrual health issues such as menstrual cramps, heavy bleeding, irregular cycle and amenorrhea (absent menstruation) was rarely provided to North Korea women. Due to their poor knowledge on menstruation as a whole a lot of women did not know that there is actually medicine that can relieve them from their pain. In the cases where they were prescribed any painkiller by a doctor that was usually not a western medicine but Chinese herbs. Western medicine could be found on the markets, but a lot of women resorted to buying a special kind of Chinese painkiller that contained opium and was thus potentially threatening their health rather than healing them.