I remember once in secondary school when one of my friends and I were talking about ‘the time of the month’ and turning around to see my male classmate’s bright red face.
I also remember girls around me whispering to each other in class, asking around if someone had a sanitary pad or using codewords if they were caught in an unexpected menstruation situation.
My Chinese friends tell me that they use a euphemism for it – when they have their period, they say that their “eldest aunt” has come to visit.
But why does it have to be a secret? Why do we need to be bashful about it?
And why do we have to call it anything other than what it actually is, our menses, a part of the normal woman’s reproductive cycle – the period?
That is a problem that Rebecca Oh, 32, wants to fix.
In 2015, Rebecca was a newlywed planning to start a family with her husband and took a closer interest in her gynaecological health. She started following up on her own health, visited her gynaecologist and did more research.
That was when she realised that almost everything she knew about the female reproductive cycle had been taught to her by the women in her family.
“I cannot remember what I’ve learnt about sexual education in school, apart from a fuzzy memory of watching some video.”
This prompted her to do more research and she started joining forums and Whatsapp groups.
There have been updates to MOE sexuality education curriculum since Rebecca was in school, but that still means that there are older Singaporeans like her and non-Singaporean residents who lack knowledge and are too shy to ask about women’s health issues.
One thing that struck her was the idea of period poverty – when lower-income women are unable to afford or access suitable feminine hygiene products.
There are other social entrepreneurs and companies trying to tackle this issue. For example, Singapore-based Vanessa Paranjothy’s Freedom Cups hopes to help end period shaming – the idea that girls and women should be embarrassed because they bleed – and period poverty.
But while that social enterprise has been looking to help marginalised women in countries like India and the Philippines, Rebecca realised that there may be a need to help women in Singapore as well.
Noticing the lack of information on period poverty in Singapore, Rebecca, who works as a manager for mental health intervention programmes, decided to start a volunteer organisation called The Giving Flo in November 2020.
The Giving Flo
“I wanted to work with women, to raise awareness about women’s health,” Rebecca tells The Pride.
“This is our body. This is what we were born to have, it’s a natural thing. Why do we have to hide behind closed doors and feel so ashamed talking about it?”
She first started with door-to-door distributions with her friends and family to help spread awareness about her cause.
“That’s really a way for us to have conversations with women in vulnerable communities,” says Rebecca.
On how she came up with the name, she says: “‘We wanted the idea of ‘giving’ back to the community and ‘Flo’ is one of the menses euphemisms (Aunty Flo) and also a reference to how we want the giving to ‘flow on’!”
She now has four people helping her with distribution but hopes to grow her volunteer pool and spread awareness through her Telegram group and Instagram posts.
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The packages include donated items that can help women go through their periods more comfortably, such as a pack of sanitary pads, sachets for powdered drinks and sometimes even masks. She and her volunteers distributed about 250 packages a month at one or two-room rental flats in parts of Yishun, changing locations every three months after a review of the needs of different areas.
However, disposable pads may not be the most sustainable and she hopes to include other options in the future.
Rebecca explains: “I believe in the importance of sustainability. That said, I also believe in having the right products for appropriate needs. In the long run, I hope to incorporate products that promote sustainability for those who are more suited for them.”
Starting workshops to share information
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Rebecca has also started workshops to share more information about gynaecological health. Her first workshop – aimed at foreign domestic workers – was held in partnership with ACMI, an organisation that supports migrants in Singapore.
The workshop taught them more about their periods and how to relax while they are busy with housework to help reduce their cramps.
“Some foreign domestic helpers have come up to me to share that they are not aware about their own period care or how to cope with their period needs,” says Rebecca.
She adds: “Some shared that they struggle to find ways to cope with their period pain and also don’t know how to improve their hygiene during their period.
“If we can help women understand their resources, their screenings, that knowledge can help with their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. That is the holistic approach that we’re looking for,” says Rebecca.
Talking about a difficult topic
Rebecca shares that during her distribution runs to lower-income households, there were times where the husband would answer the door. However, after finding out that the packages had sanitary pads in them, many were reluctant to even touch it!
She says that in their conversations, she found out that the men often found it awkward to talk about their wives’ periods and admitted to refusing to buy sanitary items for the women in their household.
So why is it so difficult to talk about periods?
Rebecca believes that it is mostly from the stigmatisation of menstruation in society.
And it’s not just an age thing. She did expect that, on her distribution runs, older people would be more hesitant to talk about periods. But Rebecca says that even in her job as a mental health professional for youths, many teenagers are still too shy to talk about their periods with her.
“I think it stems from how talking about periods is perceived to be a taboo topic and there is a certain level of shame or embarrassment associated with it. Hence, young girls or even women find it hard to talk about their periods,” shares Rebecca.
“Also, I think the lack of awareness about how period wellness is as important as physical and mental wellness makes problems associated with periods less of a priority, hence they get less attention,” she adds.
“It’s not like having a fever or sore throat, when that happens, people would happily give you advice – to take this or take that,” says Rebecca.
She hopes that through The Giving Flo care packages and workshops, she will be able to encourage more people to be open to the discussion of menstruation and women’s health.
“As long as the care pack reaches them, they can get an idea of how important it is and why we need to talk about it,” she explains.
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Women need to prioritise their health.
In our modern society, women often find themselves juggling family and career concerns. And this often means that their self-care becomes more of an afterthought.
However, this should not be the case.
She explains: “I have seen how women struggle with gynaecological health (and how it affects them). And it’s not just women’s health issues. For example, those suffering from breast cancer or cardiovascular disease, their emotional and mental health suffer as well.”
“If a woman comes to you and talks to you about her emotional or physical health stresses, don’t turn them away. Lend them a listening ear.”
Rebecca says that unlike for tests for breast cancer or diabetes screenings, many people are unaware of what resources are available for gynaecological health.
Through The Giving Flo, she hopes to form a community for women, to prompt them to prioritise their health, to help them be aware of available resources and to encourage them to visit a gynaecologist.
She hopes that this will help to prevent more health problems for women as they grow older.
Rebecca hopes that she would be able to work with more volunteers, especially those with medical specialities, to help spread awareness of this issue in schools, companies and community organisations.
She hopes that she can encourage both women and the people around them to care about gynaecological health. It shouldn’t be just about the women paying attention to themselves. Men should also be part of the conversation and not shy away from educating themselves on the reproductive health of their partners and loved ones.
Says Rebecca: “Maybe that way, you can pay a bit more attention and understand your partner, your mother and their health needs a little bit more.”