Period poverty refers to the global phenomenon that perturbs menstruators from over the world, with the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facility, and, or waste management. The stretch of period poverty does not mean the lack of access to menstrual hygiene only, it also includes the limited access to menstrual hygiene products, which causes prolonged usage of pads or tampons, which might lead to infection. Period poverty is not just an economic issue, it is a social and cultural phenomena that stigmatises a normal biological cycle causing shame, taboos surrounding it, and loss of human dignity. Though period poverty mostly troubles the low income groups in under developed and developing countries, nevertheless it is wrong to assume that developed and industrialised nations do not suffer from it. In a survey conducted in 2017, in the UK alone, 1 in 10 girls, that is 10% of the population was unable to afford sanitary wear, one in seven girls, that is 15% have struggled to find a sanitary product. In India only 12% of the menstruators have access to hygienic products, while 71% do not know about periods before they begin it. The lack of education around menstruation makes young girls unprepared to accept it as a normal bodily function.
At the onset, we need to understand that talk around period poverty is necessary, beyond gender binaries. We need to remember that all menstruators are not women and not all women menstruate because of certain health conditions. Menstruation is a public health issue and needs to be judiciously discussed in the society with men, women and gender queer, so as to remove the stigma around period being dirty or shameful.
Sanjay Wijesekera, former of UNICEF Chief of Water remarked, “Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity and public health”. Nonetheless, the traditionally bred social taboo leads women and menstruators subjected to inhuman conditions, shame, social ostracization during their periods.
In India alone 23 million girls dropout of school once they start menstruating, it is often an indicator for the family to set off the girl to marry, despite not reaching the requisite age for a legal marriage. During their cycles the girls are often not allowed to cook, as it is believed that a man who eats meals prepared by a menstruating woman will be born an ox their next birth. The women are further not allowed to eat certain things, or enter places of worship, or share the same living space with the rest of the family. They are ostracized to be on their own, for quite some time. These practices keep on increasing the taboo, stigma and shame around period. Across all the religious communities in India, the idea that period makes a woman impure perpetuates, and they are not allowed to enter temples, mosques, or go near sacrificial fires.
The issue reached a nationwide reach when the Indian Supreme Court, in a historic judgement lifted the ban on women from women of 10 to 50 (potential menstruators) years in visiting the Ayyapa shrine, in Sabrimala, Kerala. It was declared by the SC, with a 4:1 majority that such practices are illegal and unconstitutional. Even in the 21st century in one of the girls colleges in India, run by a wealthy Hindu religious community, the students were forced to strip to underwear to prove that they were not menstruating. Another report suggested that a young girl took her life after she was subjected to extreme period shaming in the community.
Such harrowing practices are widespread in Nepal, Bangladesh and various parts of the Asian and African subcontinent. In Nepal, chhaupadi, or the practice of separating menstruating women in far away huts, without water, enough food, basic sanitation, dangers of rapes, wild animals causes quite a few deaths every year. Though it has been declared an illegal practice in Nepal, some tribes still practice such customs, fearing that doing otherwise might enrage the Gods. In certain parts of Africa mobility for menstruating women is banned, they sit on holes dug in their huts and avoid interactions with others, besides using unhygienic products like rags, socks, dirty clothes, gravels, or anything available to deal with the bleeding. An UNESCO report in 2016, said that 1 out of 10 girls in the Sub-Saharan region misses school during period, while some completely drop out of school once they start bleeding.
In the long run it leads to gender inequality, treating women as impure, period shaming, unequal opportunities in education and work life. Women all over the world including India, use sand, ash, gravel, dirty clothes, rags pieces and socks to combat their bleeding. These often lead to uncomfortable vaginal infections, white and green discharge, painful periods, loss of reproductive capabilities and even death in extreme cases. In developed countries too, women with lack of awareness, or from the lack of availability of enough pads or tampons faces, “toxic shock syndrome”, which in severe cases can be life threatening. The materials used in making pads are often plastic, which harms the sexual wellness of women and has been marked as one of the primary reasons of cervical cancer in women . Using reusable cloth pads, menstrual cups are seen as reusable, economic, cheap and most importantly environment friendly, sustainable product.
The tax on period products across various countries in the world does not make it any easier for the menstruators. India removed the 12% tax on period products, in 2018, after a year of protest by group of advocates and celebrities against it. While Kenya was the first country in the world to remove it in 2004, even developed countries like Germany still levies it, leaving Ireland to be the only country in EU which does not levy period tax. Recently, Scotland has developed a model for the world by making period products free for all in the country.
In India there has been talks to destigmatise period, movies, social platforms, and infrastructure is trying to lessen the causes of period poverty in India. Campaigns like Swwach Bharat , Nirmal Bharat Yatra, aims at providing water and sanitation facilities for all. Different NGO’s like Goonj, Sikun Relief Fund, Paint it Red, She Wings, have made commendable efforts in in not just distributing the pads, tampons, menstrual cups, to the menstruators, but also tries to educate women and girls through workshops, activities, menstrual hygiene camps and advices. In compliance with the National Commission of women, the Indian government installed pad vending machines in schools and colleges, to prevent the high dropout rates due to periods and lack of availability of proper hygienic products in rural areas. However, this effort hasn’t yet been very successful.
The world already had enough on its plates to deal with, while the COVID-19 pandemic made situation worse for menstruators over the world. There has been product shortages, increased tariffs. The World Bank, UNICEF has made consistent efforts to makes pads and water supply available during the pandemic. The UNICEF reported that since COVID, around 47% menstruators have found difficulty in securing the menstrual hygiene products. However, with or without the pandemic, we as individuals and as a global society at large need to make sure to do our best to end period poverty, and dream of a world, where our fellow menstruators would be able to access proper menstrual hygiene products in the remotest corners of the world, in correctional homes and in orphanages.