Sovanvatey Hok is the founder of the Green Lady Cambodia, founded in May 2019, the women-led social enterprise in Cambodia. Vatey has the vision to empower women to reconnect with their true nature and care for their health and environment. Her social enterprise provides safer menstrual product choices, menstruation classrooms, training, and sewing workshop for girls and women in Cambodia. For her, women must accept and understand their unique selves. Vatey started the Green Lady Cambodia as a cross country project with Green Lady Vietnam in February 2017. She then realizes her passion for working on sexual and reproductive health, especially on menstruation issues and social norms.
[Below is translation of the interview that is edited for clarity.]
Q: Hello, Vatey! How are you?
Vatey: I am a bit busy recently. I am working on my small business. We are busy with promotions and exhibitions. I am also working on health issues. I also work on the youth issue.
Q: What are you doing with your small business?
Vatey: We are selling washable menstrual pads.
Q: What is that?
Vatey: My mom’s generation knows what it is. There were no sanitary pads before. Our generation uses hygienic pads. My product is a new invention. We reintroduce what has been used previously in the current market.
I am allergic to the sanitary pads available on the market. Then, I changed to use washable sanitary pads. I want to share with other people how this product changes my life. That was my starting point. Then, this concept leads to something else. We provide training to other young people. We also share our products with other NGOs working on reproductive health or menstrual hygiene. We inspire other young people to make washable menstrual pads by themselves. We support those young people as much as we can.
Q: When did you start?
Vatey: It started with a small project in late 2016. I won the fund from the Seed for Future Grant of Young Southeast Asian Leader Initiative (YSEALI) in February 2017. It was a one-year initiative. Because this project with YSEALI spoke to my heart, I have implemented it for three years. I introduced my product in May 2019. I spent almost one year on prototyping. Indeed, prototyping was not a long process. I spent more time asking myself if I wanted to work on it. If I decided to do it, my life would be different.
Q: How would this project change your life?
Vatey: When we worked on the education project, we didn’t need to meet people or appear on social media to introduce ourselves to other people. We did what we wanted to do. When we want to transform it into a social enterprise, many issues involved with it, it may affect me personally as a founder. I ask myself whether or not I can accept what I do and to embrace it. I ask myself how I am going to start it. This project is not for people of my age.
Q: What challenges have you experienced?
Vatey: Well, I feel lucky and positive. There are issues that I face. This project talks about the shameful thing. My mom asked me why I took a photo with washable sanitary pads; why I spoke of menstruation. She told me that she didn’t use that washable pads.
Firstly, the family is the main challenge. Secondly, my friends don’t want to involve with this. It is challenging to find someone to walk with me. Thirdly, when I talk about menstruation a lot on Facebook, I get many reactions. I get reactions mostly from men. Women understand the message. But men always have something to say; those comments open my eyes.
Q: Why is it shameful? Isn’t it a natural biological process?
Vatey: I want to share with you one incident when I went to the market with my parents. My dad carried the shopping basket. I put the sanitary pads in the basket. My mom was so shocked. She told me not to do it again. I asked her what did I do? She told me that I shouldn’t have asked my dad to buy sanitary pads for me. My mom asked me why I showed sanitary pads to my dad. She asked my sister the same questions. For my family, that is shameful.
Q: Do they support you now?
Vatey: They are more open to talking to me about that. I observe that, when I have a small event to speak about the menstruation, girls are shier to ask. People who are more than 30 years old are more open to talking about it. Some girls are not shy; they even ask about sex. Some don’t care what I am doing; they ask me why I don’t speak Khmer. Others ask me that why I am not shy; some say girls are complicated. These questions are new to me. If I didn’t start this business, I wouldn’t know it.
Q: How did you tell yourself when you get those comments? Have you responded to them?
Vatey: I used to respond to some comments. I responded to the comment of a boy. He commented that ‘women are complicated; I don’t want to be born as a woman.’ I answered that you have many women around you; you need to know this issue if you love them. But, other comments like you should keep it for yourselves. I didn’t respond to that. I don’t want to spend time on this type of feedback.
Q: Can you share with me about the benefit of this washable sanitary pads?
Vatey: Firstly, we use cotton so that women do not expose themselves to the chemical substances in some products on the market. I use washable sanitary pads. I want other women to experience what I am using.
Because cotton is expensive, some women are not able to effort that. We use other strategies such as making videos to show them how to make their washable sanitary pads because we want them to have good health. For environmentalists, they can use our product to reduce disposable waste. For my product, we also use plastic to make it waterproof—it is not entirely environmentally friendly. But it helps to reduce disposable waste and plastic usage. After women use it for some periods, they can use the 100% cotton so that they don’t need to use plastic anymore. This is the future. It is good for health, environment, and budget-friendly.
Q: You share with me that your family doesn’t want you to work on it because it is shameful. How about you? Have you felt ashamed of doing that?
Vatey: I asked myself a lot before I started it. I told myself that if I started it, it would stick with me. I asked myself again and again. Then, I decided to do it. In 2019, we produced one video to promote the Green Lady Cambodia. The video producer asked me if I was okay with period blood in the video. I thought about it again and again. I listened to my passion, not my fear. I told myself that I was ready to do it and accept whatever may come after my decision.
Q: What comes after your decision?
Vatey: I know my mom doesn’t like what I am doing. Our culture is family first. They influence our life even though you are independent. When I was younger, I took a photo with my male friends. My mom told me to delete that photo. I was aware that my mom would be furious if I worked on this period sanitation.
Q: Did you consult with your mom before running your business?
Vatey: I didn’t ask her. I posted my photo with the sanitary pads.
Q: How did she react after seeing that?
Vatey: She said she didn’t understand why I did it. She wanted me to delete that photo. She said, ‘it is shameful.’ She asked me why I took the photo with washable sanitary pads and posted them on Facebook.
Q: How did you respond to her?
Vatey: I told her that ‘this is what I like and I what I am doing.’ I like it, and I am using it. I told her how to use it and asked her to use it. My mom took it, and she gave me back. She told me that she didn’t know how to use it. I asked her what you used during Pol Pot time. She told me that she used ‘lightweight fabric.’ Also, she told me how to clean it and use it during the Khmer Rouge time.
My mom is more open to talking about that with me. But I am aware that she could not compromise because there are other issues related to our culture and tradition. She thinks that if she allows me to work on that, it is her fault to let me do it.
Q: What is that culture? How does it affect you?
Vatey: I want to talk about some prohibitions for women since my grandmother’s generation or even before my grandmother’s generation. Something like, talking about menstruation or menstrual blood in public are not appreciated.
Q: Interesting. But they sell sanitary pads in the market.
Vatey: Yes, they sell it, but we can’t talk about it.
Q: How about your relative? How did they react when they first saw your video?
Vatey: I am not so close to my relatives. I am not even close to my parents. I have only one close cousin. I learn their reaction when I meet them during the traditional ceremony. They told me that ‘they didn’t understand what I am doing.’ For the washable sanitary pads, I have not heard anything from them yet; they seem silent. When I stayed in the forest with Young Eco Ambassador, they told me that I didn’t understand why you didn’t stay at home; why you went to the forest. They wanted to say to me that ‘I am a girl.’ My male friends told that, as well. They asked why I went to the forest; why didn’t I stay home. They said again and again. I noted it.
Q: What motivates you to continue doing that because people around you do not understand what you are doing?
Vatey: If I don’t do it, who does it? I look at the people around me. If I don’t do it, no one wants to do it. If I do it, others want to do it. Some girls do it, and they succeed on a small scale. They told me that they wanted to do it. Before I started my small business, there was no one did that. Some NGOs worked on that and discussed menstruation in their community. I believe that what I am doing contributes to provoke conversation on this issue. It is annoying to learn that Khmer girls do not know about menstrual hygiene and are shy to talk about it.
Q: What should be done to encourage girls to learn about it?
Vatey: I have talked with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, and other NGOs working on educational health. What I have learned from those discussions is that people were waiting for each other to begin. I know my capacity and limitation. I am 25 years old. In terms of knowledge, I studied law and English literature. I told myself that I didn’t know anything. I should start doing something about what I know. I create videos so that other NGOs can use them and show them to their community because they work directly with girls and schools.
Many schools in Cambodia remain unequipped with toilets that allow girls to change the washable sanitary pads at schools. If you talk about the sanitary pads, many schools do not have it for girls at schools. There are many rooms for improvement. I want others to know about it. I want to make it happen in Cambodia. We can work together to get there.
Q: Do you have any messages for other young girls?
Vatey: I want to talk about body shaming. We, as young women, are shy to look at our menstrual blood. We do not satisfy with what we have. We want to do plastic surgery to change our noses’ shape and make our skin brighter. I want to tell them that they are beautiful. When they start looking at their menstrual blood, it can empower them to be more confident. They can accept themselves with what they born with.
Q: Do you have messages for the community?
Vatey: People have choices. People have the freedom to access information and to make choices. What I do is to inform people so that they can get more information to make a decision. When I was younger, I knew only one option available for me—disposable sanitary pads. I wish that someone would have told me that there were many other choices, even if I didn’t use it. It is okay that they don’t use it. What I want from this project is to let them know that they have four or five options available for them.
Q: Thank you very much for joining me today.
Vatey: Thank you very much for doing what you are doing.