We recently sat down with Emily Au-Young, co-founder of menstrual care charity Reemi. Based in New Zealand, the organisation has developed the world’s first self-disinfecting period reusable underwear product, which will see 100% of the profits go towards benefiting women in Bangladesh through local partnerships that educate women on period care, breaking social taboos, and offering a culturally sensitive washing solution. A truly socially and environmentally impactful initiative, we were thrilled to be able to speak to Emily about what Reemi does, why they are different, the challenges that women face, and why environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand.
A Chinese-Kiwi who previously worked as the communications and fundraising manager for Hong Kong’s Crossroads Foundation, Emily Au-Yeung is on a mission to fight period poverty amongst workers in garment factories in Bangladesh (and eventually throughout South Asia), where myths about menstruation and frequent painful infections are widespread.
Co-founded by Ashleigh Howan and Emily, Reemi, a New Zealand registered charity, has debuted to the world’s first reusable period underwear made from self-disinfecting and biodegradable fibre CottonX. They’ve also created a mesh bag to enable women to wash the period underwear hygienically. Under local cultural contexts, it is inappropriate for women to touch menstrual blood, which leads to the practice of washing the product on the floor where all sorts of bacteria can be picked up.
GQ: It’s so awesome to be able to speak to you, Emily. Just to introduce your work to our readers, could you give our readers a bit of an overview of Reemi?
EAY: Reemi is a registered charity based in New Zealand, co-founded by myself and Ashleigh around the start of last year, out of a desire and need to find solutions to menstrual products that were sustainable and culturally appropriate. I used to be a communications manager at Crossroads Foundation, and that’s how I found out about the issue of the lack of menstrual products and hygiene. Ashleigh is a registered nurse with a big passion for women’s health.
For the past two years, we’ve been working on research and development to figure out how to develop innovative products for women, especially around feminine hygiene. One of the main things we wanted to use was the latest in fabric technology to create this product. Now, we’re launching a trial to measure and assess what product is the most effective, if any are effective, and whether this is really what we want. We’re working with multiple research and apparel partners to keep improving.
GQ: Could you talk a bit about why social taboos around period care are still widespread in Bangladesh and across Asia more broadly?
EAY: To be honest, I think menstruation remains taboo in every continent! I’m surprised how much it still remains a taboo in New Zealand [where I’m from]. In Bangladesh particularly, why it remains a taboo is mainly due to lack of education around what is going on with our bodies, and definitely also social and cultural norms that are unhealthy. It’s cyclical. If your mother isn’t talking about it, then you’re not asking questions about it and you won’t talk to others about it. And if teachers are not teaching it in the curriculum, it feeds into way society cultivates a cultural taboo.
I’ve done lots of interviews during my research in Bangladesh, and one of the wildest myths I came across was from a lady who said she enjoyed getting her period because it would help “clean out her eyes”. She said that she knew women who had poorer eyesight as their period stopped. Turns out, she was referring to women who had gone through menopause, and had poorer eyesight as a natural result of ageing. This is a great example of just how widespread myths and misinformation are. If you’re in a situation where your colleagues, family members and friends have untrue beliefs, then you define a new set of “normal”, and this “normal” isn’t healthy.
GQ: How critical is the need for eco-friendly and socially impactful period care in Asia?
EAY: The number one reason why eco products are important is because the poorest people in the world are most affected by environmental decisions, so if we care about people, we have to care about the planet. And secondly, sustainable products are sustainable for the world. Reusing is imperative if we want to see long-term change, we just cannot feasibly continue to give out single-use pads and tampons.
From a social and health aspect, I was really skeptical when we first started our journey that it could really be that bad for women. When we were doing research with a non-profit organisation called Goonj in Delhi, we were told of a story of a woman who had used scrap cloth for her period that had a piece of metal stuck in it, which ended up in her vagina and she had contracted tetanus from it and passed away. And the more I dug into this issue, the more I discovered menstrual related deaths in different contexts and places.
In Bangladesh specifically, there are very high infection rates. Our local partners, Change Associates, they did a study and found that women were taking on average 6 days a month off work due to infections, which is associated with a whole range of life changing problems like leading to infertility if they aren’t getting proper treatment. So there is definitely a huge need from a health and social aspect.
GQ: What is the inspiration behind all your work?
EAY: I think for myself, when I was working at Crossroads Foundation with Syrian and Jordinian refugees, it really struck me that women were not able to access period care or find hygienic feminine solutions. When I dug deeper and looked into how big this issue could be, we saw that this problem existed in every single country. Everywhere we looked, there were women without access to menstrual products and education. The widespread nature of a natural bodily function that happens every single month to all individuals born with a uterus really drove me to find some kind of a solution. For Ashleigh, she always cared about women’s health and was completely compelled to work on a project that would be supportive of women and the community.
GQ: You’ve previously said that there is a lack of innovation in the feminine hygiene space. Despite this, it does seem like the conversation around menstrual care has become louder in recent years, with the launch of many sustainable period care brands. Do you think this is part of a health and wellness explosion in developed countries, or is there something more to it?
EAY: This is definitely something to think about because health and wellness is one of the fastest growing industries today. In general, I think it’s got something to do with women being more empowered to innovate for issues related to women. There is a growing trend where in the startup world, which is traditionally male-dominated, we’re seeing more women entering the space and catering specifically to the needs of women. So think that this has definitely contributed to part of this take-off.
GQ: That leads on well to my next question: as a female-led and founded company, what are some of the key challenges you’ve faced?
EAY: I guess when we first started talking about the issue of menstrual care, I didn’t understand how systemic the need was for gender equality in places of power. In boardrooms, for instance, it is so often that we talk to boards that are male-dominated and we are not able to convince the urgency of a female issue as well as we would in a boardroom that would have an even gender split. For us, it has been a real challenge trying to communicate the issue in a way that everyone understands the seriousness of it.
GQ: How is alleviating the lack of menstrual care and social taboos linked to helping solve inequality?
EAY: One of the main things we see time and time again in the developing world is that if you invest in women, the entire community benefits. If women are healthy and well, the impact is not just limited to that person. I was once with a group in Nepal, and a member of a local social enterprise organisation said that if you invest in men, they’ll spend on cigarettes, but if you invest in women, they will buy school fees, healthcare and food for the kids. It’s a major reason why we have to invest in women, particularly in developing contexts. The health and wellbeing can be passed on.
GQ: With the launch of Reemi’s Kickstarter campaign, what do you hope to achieve?
EAY: This Kickstarter is really us looking to see if we can create more innovative products and develop more prototypes. We want to improve the sustainability and technical aspects that would help empower women even more. Essentially, we want to create another revenue stream for us so that it isn’t just philanthropic but can be sustainable in the long-run. If the Kickstarter doesn’t work out, we won’t be making the product commercially available but will keep our non-profit efforts going for women in Bangladesh. We hope that we can scale this up though, to work in other countries too, and we’re also looking at working in vulnerable situations like refugee camps.
[Editor’s Update: Reemi’s Kickstarter campaign was a huge success and has been fully funded.]
GQ: What are the main pressures that young women and girls face today?
EAY: Oh there are so many, I don’t know. But I think broadly, there are huge pressures coming from social media. Not just in appearance, but in your ‘likeability’ and image as a human being, right? You’re subjected to judgement online at such crazy rates now. The number of likes and comments you get on a post and the pressure of your what your social media presence looks like.
GQ: If you had to pinpoint one issue that the planet is facing which deserves more attention, what would it be?
EAY: Out of all the issues! This is so hard. I think if we look at any issue in the world, it is people’s ability to listen to each other. If we get to the point where we can sit at the table with two different points of view, and understand empathetically why someone else holds a different point of view, we will be in a much better state. This applies both socially and environmentally, because after all, the two go hand in hand.
GQ: And of course, we have to ask this: team rice or team noodles?
EAY: This is the hardest question I have ever been asked! [Laughs] But, oh I do love a good noodle soup.
Reemi has just launched their Kickstarter campaign, where you can purchase their innovative product while helping women all around the world. Alternatively, you can make a direct donation through their page.
Lead image courtesy of Green Queen.