“Period poverty is a situation many girls and women find themselves in when they are unable to afford the costly period products. Globally, period poverty intersects with other forms of disadvantage, including poverty and geography. It costs young girls their education. It impacts their ability to fulfil their potential and affects their ability to secure a decent job and lift their families out of poverty. Period poverty is an issue of gender inequality.”– Amika George, the founder of Free Periods campaign
Period poverty, or more officially known as the lack of access to sufficient menstrual hygiene management (MHM), affects up to 500 million people globally each month. Its negative impact can manifest itself in many different ways. In rural areas of Sierra Leone, one-fifth of girls skip school when menstruating because of insufficient hygienic protection. In more developed countries such as Bolivia, misinformation and a lack of proper sanitation is still compromising menstrual hygiene.
In one piece of research, UNICEF even discovered that 65% of women in the Kibera slum of Nairobi had traded sex for sanitary pads. Furthermore, period poverty is not only a problem for less developed countries – in the UK, for example, 10% of girls surveyed by Plan International UK had been unable to afford sanitary products.
It comes as no surprise that period poverty affects those subjected to it in many negative ways. To begin with, there is concern over the potentially increased likelihood of health issues, more specifically the risk of vaginal and reproductive tract infections. In addition, poor MHM combined with the societal stigma linked to periods is preventing girls from completing their daily activities, such as going to school. Most importantly, however, the long-term impact of missing school is highly worrisome in terms of girls’ and other menstruators’ future. Low school attendance reduces their economic prospects, impacts population health, including sexual and reproductive health, compromises self-esteem and a sense of control.
By contrast, girls who attend school reportedly feel empowered, have the ambition to improve their communities and are less likely to be victims of forced marriage. The possible far-reaching and multifaceted impact of period poverty has led to the issue being framed as a human rights concern. Period poverty can arguably threaten the rights to human dignity, to an adequate standard of health and well-being, to education, to work and to non-discrimination and gender equality.
However, the consequences of period poverty do not end with individuals; the issue has implications for the wider society as well. For example, the mental and physical handicaps of period poverty can prevent women from reaching their full potential in the economy, which in turn stalls growth and development.
According to the World Bank, with every 1% increase in the proportion of women in secondary education, a country’s annual per capita income grows by 0.3%.
So, since the reduction and ultimate elimination of period poverty are in the interest of society at large, who should, and who is, taking responsibility for it?
Arguably NGOs and grassroots campaigns have initially carried much of the duties in terms of alleviating and researching period poverty, however with the ultimate goal of securing government funding. One such example is the Free Periods campaign, initiated by Amika George in 2017, which started as an appeal for the provision of free menstrual products in all schools. Similarly, Plan International UK has proposed the introduction of a ‘P-card Scheme’ that would provide those in need with free menstrual products.
In some other cases, governments have responded directly. Free Periods, for example, proved successful in 2019, when the British government announced funding for free sanitary products in all English secondary schools and colleges. Furthermore, some countries, such as Australia, have removed or decreased taxation on sanitary products, although in many countries this remains the object of frequent protest. In addition, there is a significant lack of research on the real impacts and severity of period poverty, which academics have raised concerns over.
And what about menstrual management product companies? Many such companies are now pledging resources into alleviating period poverty. However, when Always announced its campaign #EndPeriodPoverty, the donation it promised was deemed by critics as so insignificant (one pad per one pack of pads purchased) that it seemed like Always was merely cashing in on period poverty. In general, there is perhaps always a reason to be sceptical about the authenticity of large corporations that make huge profits – can the solution to poverty really come from such a company? On the other hand, these companies have a lot of resources available if they are accepted as partners in the fight to enhance MHM.
It is obvious that period poverty is a global humanitarian concern. However, it seems that there is no consistent response from governments to this problem, nor is there a clear consensus on who should tackle the wide array of needs associated with period poverty. Even though around half of the global population will menstruate during their lifetime, period poverty seems to be given the urgency of a marginal issue.