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Breaking the Period Poverty Cycle

By Alexandra Tan Education Lead, Incision UK


What is period poverty?


Period poverty is a pervasive issue that denies individuals the basic right to manage their periods with dignity. It can be defined as the absence of access to safe and hygienic menstrual products, basic sanitation services, and menstrual hygiene education, resulting in individuals being unable to manage their periods without shame of stigma. Despite over 800 million people menstruating daily, an estimated 500 million individuals worldwide face the harsh reality of period poverty. This not only affects individuals' physical health but also has far-reaching consequences on their emotional well-being, education, and overall quality of life.


Period poverty arises from various factors, including limited access, affordability challenges, embarrassment and fear of stigma, cultural alienation, and environmental constraints. Lack of access to affordable menstrual products, especially in low-income communities, perpetuates a cycle of inequality.


Just how big is period poverty?


Period poverty spans across both low- and high-income countries. In the United Kingdom, 10% of girls have been unable to afford menstrual products, 15% have faced difficulties in accessing them, and 19% have resorted to using inadequate alternatives due to high costs. The situation is no different in the United States, where an alarming 500 million people lack access to menstrual products and proper hygiene facilities. Disturbingly, 14.2% of college students who menstruate experienced period poverty within the past year alone.


Beyond resource scarcity, period poverty is compounded by social sanctions in certain geographical areas. One such example is the practice of chhaupadi in Nepal where menstruating individuals, usually young girls are isolated in remote huts due to superstitions about bringing bad luck or illness. This practice leaves them without necessary supplies, protection, and proper facilities, leading to physical and psychological issues. Tragically, deaths from suffocation, fire, pneumonia, and animal attacks have been reported. Despite being outlawed in 2005, chhaupadi persists in many communities, depriving girls of education and endangering their well-being.


The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated disparity in period poverty. A study conducted in the United States which revealed that 30% of respondents experienced difficulty accessing menstrual products due to mandatory home quarantine measures, while 29% struggled to purchase them. Additionally, 18.5% faced challenges in affording menstrual products during the pandemic. Women with young children were particularly affected, facing increased difficulty in accessing menstrual products during this period of crisis.


What happens to those facing period poverty?


The physical impacts of period poverty are extensive. Inadequate access to clean toilets, privacy measures, clean water, sanitation, and hygienic menstrual products makes it difficult to maintain proper menstrual hygiene. Many schools and workplaces do not provide clean facilities, exacerbating the problem. Limited access to menstrual products often leads to prolonged use of the same tampons or pads, or resorting to unsanitary alternatives like dirty rags, coconut husks, or newspapers, increasing the risk of infections such as urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacterial vaginosis (BV). The risk of infection is particularly heightened in individuals who have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). Unfortunately, there is an overlap between regions with a high prevalence of FGM and areas facing significant period poverty, resulting in compounded adverse outcomes. In some cases, women may choose pregnancy as a means to avoid menstruation, which poses significant risks to maternal and fetal health due to limited resources for antenatal and perinatal care.


Individuals grappling with period poverty also often endure stress and social isolation due to the stigma surrounding menstruation. A study conducted in France revealed that women facing period poverty experienced significant psychological issues, including depression and anxiety. Nearly half (49.4%) of the women who had experienced period poverty reported at least one psychological symptom.


In numerous regions across the globe, girls face significant barriers to attending school due to their periods. Girls frequently miss one or more days of school during their periods, which has a detrimental effect on their educational progress. According to a 2014 report by UNESCO, approximately 1 in 10 menstruating adolescents miss school during their menstrual cycle due to insufficient access to menstrual products and resources. In Sub-Saharan Africa, some girls may miss up to 20% of their school year, increasing the risk of them dropping out of school entirely, perpetuating gender inequalities and increasing the likelihood of girls being forced into child marriage.


Initiatives and solutions


The recognition of menstrual products as a crucial aspect of overall well-being is gaining momentum worldwide. Countries and governments are increasingly acknowledging the importance of addressing period poverty to advance gender equality and empower future generations. Recent policy advancements, like the 10-year Women's Health Strategy for England 2022, demonstrate a commitment to reducing financial barriers surrounding menstrual products. Moreover, menstrual products are being acknowledged as a "healthcare necessity," leading to the reduction or elimination of taxes on these essential items in the United States, Kenya, Canada, Australia, India, Colombia, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Nigeria, Uganda, Lebanon, Trinidad and Tobago, among others. The provision of free menstrual products in lavatories, schools, workplaces, and universities is also gaining traction. Scotland, for example, has implemented a law providing free menstrual products to anyone who needs them, while in Victoria, Australia, all public schools have been supplied with free sanitary pads. Similar initiatives are being implemented across universities in the UK, aiming to alleviate financial barriers.


Numerous organizations are also actively working to address period poverty. ActionAid, for instance, provides training on making reusable sanitary pads, offering an affordable and sustainable solution. They also establish girls' clubs and rooms in schools, creating safe spaces for girls to learn about menstruation, advocate for their rights, and access menstrual products without shame. In humanitarian crises, ActionAid distributes kits containing menstrual products, soap, and clean underwear to ensure safe and dignified period management. Period poverty UK focuses on distributing period products to areas in high need, including homeless charities and refugee camps. The Pad Project combines pad machines or washable pad programs with community partnerships and sexual and reproductive health education. Additionally, femcare startup Freda offers organic, eco-friendly period products and donates to those in need with every box purchased. Librea menstrual panties provide a sustainable and comfortable reusable option, reducing both the environmental impact and cost associated with menstruation.


And finally, what can we do? At an individual level, sparking conversations and empowering women to seek help reduces the stigma and taboos surrounding period poverty, fostering a more inclusive and supportive society for all. Together with governments and orgnizations, we can work towards eliminating period poverty. Every person deserves access to menstrual products and the dignity that comes with it. Period.




References:

  1. The Pad Project. Available at: https://thepadproject.org/ (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

  2. Startups Making Innovative Sustainable Period Products. Available at: https://therecursive.com/startups-making-innovative-sustainable-period-products/ (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

  3. UNESCO. Puberty Education and Menstrual Hygiene Management. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000226792 (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

  4. Women's Health Strategy for England: Menstrual Health and Gynaecological Conditions. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/womens-health-strategy-for-england/womens-health-strategy-for-england#menstrual-health-and-gynaecological-conditions (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

  5. ActionAid UK. Period Poverty. Available at: https://www.actionaid.org.uk/our-work/womens-rights/period-poverty#footnote4_dssscfr (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

  6. Period Poverty UK. Available at: https://periodpoverty.uk/ (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

  7. Period Poverty: Why it should be everybody's business. Available at: https://www.joghr.org/article/32436-period-poverty-why-it-should-be-everybody-s-business (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

  8. Hennegan, J., Shannon, A. K., & Rubli, J. (2020). Period poverty can be defined as the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and sanitation facilities needed to manage menstruation, along with a lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene education. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10372806/#:~:text=Period%20poverty%20can%20be%20defined,menstrual%20hygiene%20education%20%5B6%5D. (Accessed: 19 March 2024).

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