|A menstrual cup|
By Park Ji-won
Debate over silicon menstrual cups, an alternative hygiene product to sanitary pads and tampons, is heating up in Korea.
Although they have been banned from the market, the products have still been gaining popularity.
"I wanted to try to use a menstrual cup if it's convenient for me," Kim Ji-won, 28, told The Korea Times.
"But buying one is a hassle for me because I need to order it from an overseas shopping mall."
Kim is one of a growing number of women who use menstrual cups.
Although many women in Korea don't know about them, those who come across them pay more attention to the products. They cost between $20 and $30 each on average. Cost-effectiveness is one big advantage and they last for many years. They have been widely used in the U.S. and European countries for decades.
But, the Korean government has not approved their sales. The ban in Korea stems from the fact that they're so new. Unsure of how to categorize the products, the government simply prohibited production and sales.
People buy them from overseas online shopping malls and sometimes they are confiscated at customs.
There are local makers and they are fighting against the government to survive. Uni, a menstrual cup manufacturer in Korea which sells their products overseas, was recently punished for their activities.
In a blog, the company's president complained that the bans are unfair and that Korea should legalize the cups. Many female users shared his postings online, helping the issue gain more attention.
The government said, although slowly, they are moving towards legalizing the cups.
"We are trying to come up with guidelines with several companies to approve their products," said an anonymous official from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to The Korea Times. On Thursday, it hosted the first meeting.
Some question the products' safety, but supporters dismiss the point, claiming the fact that they are sold the U.S. and Europe means they are safe.
Need for various female products
The popularity of menstrual cups reflects rising awareness of women's rights in Korea, a traditionally male-dominated society.
Many women viewed the government's ban on the cups as disregard for women and acted strongly to what happened to Uni.
They tweeted Uni president's complaints and shared them on their social media accounts, which helped the issue draw media attention.
They argue the cups are also a solution to those who can't afford pads and tampons.
Last year, the entire country was rattled after news reports that girls gave up on going to school during their menstrual cycle because they didn't have pads to wear. One girl said she had worn a shoe inner sole as an alternative. That prompted many local governments to give pads to girls from low-income households.
"Giving more options to choose various female hygiene products is directly linked to rights about being healthy," activist Hong Yeon-ji at Womenlink, a women's rights group, said during a phone interview with The Korea Times. "The government should approach the female rights issue as part of welfare policy-making rather than focusing on increasing the birth rate as priority. It is important to discuss the issue openly and beyond generations."