For femtech startups, there have been questions about why the sector is ‘late to the party’ in Southeast Asia.
But Amina Sugimoto believes that instead of asking why they arrived late or why such startups are low-funded, we must discuss the regional challenges faced by women in Southeast Asia.
“When it comes to comparing Western and Eastern countries and how they should be, there is often a bias towards a western-centric point of view,” points out Sugimoto, founder of Fermata Inc., a company that provides solutions for women’s wellness.
“Instead of comparing regions of completely different cultures, religions, and lifestyles, I hope we can take a localised approach to public health and assess what each country and its citizens need,” she adds.
“Instead of asking whether femtech is late to arrive in SEA compared to its western originator, let’s ask what type of femtech products should be the focus and in which country, based on the population’s needs and readiness,” Sugimoto notes.
In a recent report, titled ‘Femtech Market Map of South East Asia 2021‘, Fermata spells out the different health challenges faced by women in Southeast Asia and where femtech is headed.
Here are the edited excerpts of the report:
Stigma against vaginal health makes it harder to develop femtech further
Sugimoto is of the opinion that innovations in female hygiene care are less likely to be adopted if women are not taught how the female reproductive system works. This causes girls to develop anxiety and self-consciousness around their vaginal health because they do not have the knowledge and normalised discussion around personal care.
Internal-use products like tampons and menstrual cups are harder to convince a woman to try than a sanitary pad. Furthermore, high-tech pleasure toys and fertility trackers also require the user to be familiar with her reproductive system and open-minded enough to give them a try.
“Unfortunately, there are no femtech startups in Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. The reason is that unlike developed countries that support innovation, less developed countries have to focus more on public health issues like having access to basic healthcare,” she remarks.
Cultural and social taboos around sexual health
Unfortunately, many counties in Southeast Asia do not have a national sex education policy. Therefore, each high school has different ways of teaching about reproduction and contraception, and few do not teach it at all.
The Unicef’s ‘Review of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Thailand’ elaborates that institutions stress topics related to the prevention of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), while in Singapore, the Ministry of Education has recently updated its sex education curriculum to go beyond abstinence and teenage pregnancies to be more inclusive.
Inadequate sex education programmes such as these are common in other countries as well. This often leads the young adults to gain incorrect information on the topic and affecting informed decision-making when it comes to their sexual health.
However, there are some startups that have observed this and aim to solve this issue. For example, theAsianparent, helps Asian women have healthy pregnancies and raise healthy children through its content platform.
Lack of education leads to myths and misunderstanding
In some Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, tampons are very hard to find (Asian women are still wary of using them), whereas, in others like the US, 70 per cent of the population regularly use the device.
Femtech solutions such as the Elocare wearable in Singapore can help women monitor, treat, and manage their symptoms with ease throughout their midlife stage.
Still, it is an untapped market that offers impactful opportunities as women approaching peri- and menopause now have more purchasing power than ever.
The full report is available to read here.
Image Credit: Avrielle Suleiman
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