Celebrated annually on 12 August, International Youth Day aims to bring youth issues to the attention of the international community as well as provide an opportunity to celebrate the amazing work carried out by young people across the globe.
Celebrated annually on 12 August, International Youth Day aims to bring youth issues to the attention of the international community as well as provide an opportunity to celebrate the amazing work carried out by young people across the globe. 2022 Diana Award recipient Manyasiri (Pear) Chotbunwong from Bangkok, Thailand is one such young person, as she strives to empower girls to challenge pre-established menstrual constructs and fight for the equality we all deserve.
When I was 15, I lost my period for eight months – and I was thrilled. No more cramps, bloating, or embarrassing trips to the bathroom to change my pad.
My mom and I never talked about menstruation, but nearly a year later, when she discovered a pile of pristine pads in my room, she rushed me to the gynaecologist. My diagnosis was Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a menstrual disorder caused by hormonal imbalance leading to cysts in my ovaries. Without hormone treatment, I could’ve become permanently infertile.
For months, I hid in the toilet to take my medication. But after my friends caught me, I finally shared my story. I was shocked by their outpouring of menstrual concerns and issues that they kept secret. Strongly believing that we needed to break this period stigma, I founded H.E.R. (Health. Equity. Respect.).
My first step was to break the silence by speaking at Bangkok’s annual interscholastic service conference. My hands were shaking as I stared nervously at the board with my tagline ‘Let’s Talk About Periods!’ projected in bold. Our next events grew to over 100 people, then up to 500. Speaking before the entire student body of various schools throughout Thailand, I confidently asked the crowd of strangers to “Raise your hands if you love someone who menstruates!” Everyone cheered as hands shot into the air.
The girl who once hid in the toilet had become “The Period Girl,” proudly speaking publicly about menstrual issues. But when I learned that many girls in rural areas miss school during their periods because they can’t access hygiene products, I knew I had to expand from advocacy to action - I wanted to develop an affordable, sustainable, reusable pad.
With Thailand’s abundance of agricultural by-products, I tested sugarcane bagasse, water hyacinth, and coconut fibre as possible renewable low-cost absorbent materials. I selected bagasse, a sugar industry waste byproduct, for its superior absorbent cellulose structures, and designed a form-fitting reusable cotton casing.
After gaining approval from the Thai FDA last year, I organized a 12-school fundraiser to support H.E.R. pads, which are sewn by former female inmates in cooperation with the House of Blessing. With the support of 60 officers domestically, I’ve led H.E.R. to partner with Plan International, the Freedom Restoration Project, and Brooklyn Library’s Cycle Alliance to distribute thousands of menstrual hygiene supplies to women across 5 countries.
HER champions three main Sustainable Development Goals: Gender Equality, Good Health and Well-being, and Decent Work and Economic Growth.
Growing up, I witnessed how the social and cultural status quo prevents change in Thailand. As someone with a long-undiagnosed menstrual disorder, I’ve experienced first-hand the dangers of people’s hesitance to discuss ‘taboo’ topics. And as a volunteer at the NGO House of Blessing, I saw how many former prisoners faced difficulties finding employment because of the stigma of their incarceration.
These experiences have shown me how menstrual stigma causes many girls to miss out on the educational opportunities they deserve, to lack access to menstrual hygiene products, and to suffer through menstrual challenges alone. They motivated me to create an organization that addresses the cultural status quo that marginalizes former inmates by helping them earn supplemental income through sewing reusable menstrual pads.
Through HER, I strive to cultivate courage in myself and other girls empowering us to challenge man-made constructs and fight for the equality we all deserve.
Head to our Menstrual Hygiene Day blog where you can learn from 2021 Legacy Award recipient Vivi Lin and her social action project ‘With Red’."