Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review
Period Poverty in Youth, Proliferating Disparities
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
By Shruti Gautam, Rock Bridge High School, Columbia, MO
A silent threat, with stigma holding tongues back, period poverty affects countless students, harming their education. Nationwide, 1 in 5 menstruating teens struggles to buy period products (Thinx & PERIOD, 2019). Those who should be focusing on growing and developing are instead worrying whether they can afford to maintain a normal biological process safely. Among these teens, 84% have either missed or know someone who has missed school due to period poverty (Thinx & PERIOD, 2019). As a result, they struggle to access full and proper education because students would rather stay at home than face embarrassment, discomfort, and pain. The school system is supposed to be a haven, fostering both education and well-being. However, stigma combined with a lack of care instead leads to young people skipping or missing class on account of something they cannot control.
As of 2019, 21% of children in the United States live in poverty, with 43% in low-income families (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2019). Families in such economic situations will first buy essentials, often putting pricey items such as period products at the end of the list. Young people turn to unsanitary alternatives, and, with the COVID-19 crisis, their situation is not improving. PERIOD, a national nonprofit focused on menstrual health, has offered to send free products to shelters, food banks, or any of their chapters. However, donations are not enough. Such a problem, deeply rooted in inequity and historical shame associated with menstrual health, requires sustainable policies. It is time for a national discussion on period poverty to begin and flourish.
Schools should offer period products, as necessary as soap and toilet paper, for their students in their bathrooms for free. They should not have to walk to a nurse’s office or have money on them. Socio-economic barriers in the education system shed light on the growing disparity in schools. Affecting rural areas more than urban, period poverty is bolstered by misinterpretation and lack of advocacy. The rudimentary health of a child cannot be a representation of zip code. Thus, numerous states, such as New Hampshire, Georgia, California, Illinois, and New York, have passed legislation for free period products to be offered in school bathrooms. In many cities, such as Boston and Portland, there have been local efforts to debase this biological and social inequity. A similar initiative exists in Columbia, MO. “In our ongoing efforts to create an equitable environment for all students, eliminating the need for female students to pay for their feminine products is a major step in the right direction. [...] having such items inaccessible, other than through purchase or being required to share personal information with a nurse first, creates a barrier for students,” said Carla London, the Chief Equity Officer for Columbia Public Schools.
However, this problem is not specific to the United States. Chhaupadi is an illegal tradition in Nepal which forces girls to stay in a small hut during their period. Many girls have died due to suffocation or have gotten raped in the huts. Girls in rural villages do not fully understand what a period is and are forced by their community to spend time in the hut. Projects, such as “The Rato Baltin”, help educate girls and provide them with free feminine products. The obstruction created by this bodily process only propagates a system of stigma towards menstruators. UNICEF also estimates that around one in ten African girls misses school during their periods. (Onyeji, 2019). There are no proper resources to take care of one’s cycle, and students are uncomfortable leaving the house. Multiple studies have proven that such circumstances result in higher chances of anxiety or depression. (Elsworthy, 2018). Period poverty continues to be a barrier to proper education and development. Moreover, the already marginalized, especially those of low socio-economic strata, are disproportionately affected.
Stigma cannot continue to impede the rights of young people in any country. Schools must play their part by providing a healthy space for students to turn to for products. We cannot pick and choose issues that we care about based on whether we are comfortable talking about it. After all, “Menstruation is not a girls’ or women’s’ issue — it’s a HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE” (The United Nations, 2019).
Blackburn, L. & Okamoto, N. (2020, March 26). What Schools Need to Add to Their Covid-19 Crisis Toolkit. CNN. Retrieved from www.cnn.com/2020/03/26/opinions/covid-19-and-period-poverty-blackburn-okamoto/index.html
Elsworthy, E. (2018, July 18). Women who experience period poverty 'more likely to suffer anxiety or depression'. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/period-poverty-anxiety-depression-study-women-mental-health-sanitary-products-a8452581.html
National Center for Children in Poverty. (2019). Child Poverty. Bank Street Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html
Onyeji, E. (2019, May 30). Period Poverty: How menstruation makes Nigerian girls miss school. Retrieved from http://www.premiumtimesng.com/health/health-news/331979-period-poverty-how-menstruation-makes-nigerian-girls-miss-school.html
Smith, M. & Strauss, V. (2019, January 29). Activists Call on Education Department to Take Action for 'Menstrual Equity'. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/activists-call-on-education-department-to-take-action-for-menstrual-equity/2019/01/28/815c6d08-2349-11e9-90cd-dedb0c92dc17_story.html?noredirect=on
Thinx & PERIOD. (2019). State of the Period: The widespread impact of period poverty on US students. Retrieved from: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0795/1599/files/State-of-the-Period-white-paper_Thinx_PERIOD.pdf?455788
United Nations Population Fund. (2019, May 28). Menstruation Is Not a Girls' or Women's Issue – It's a Human Rights Issue. Retrieved from: www.unfpa.org/news/menstruation-not-girls-or-womens-issue-%E2%80%93-its-human-rights-issue