When Will We End Period Poverty?
By Carolyn He, The Academy for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering, Rockaway, New Jersey, USA
For over 300 million women on any given day, the monthly red that trickles down is the surest sign of womanhood (World Bank, 2022). Yet, for many of those women, access to necessary feminine hygiene products is still like a luxury rather than a basic human right as it should be. Like financial poverty, period poverty is an omnipresent issue that surfaces in global and local settings alike. However, unlike financial poverty, period poverty remains largely unacknowledged and unaddressed.
In order to visualize potential solutions, one must first understand the origins and current perpetrators of period poverty. Period poverty, as defined by the American Medical Women’s Association, is the “inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and educations, including but not limited to sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management” (Alvarez, 2019). While the origins of period poverty are fairly new in medical literature, this is an issue that has plagued humankind for centuries (Davies, 2021). The social stigmas surrounding women’s health date as far back as the medieval times, when women were viewed as “leaky vessels” with limited merit beyond bearing children (Witt, 2018). As of current day, the socially acceptable etiquette for menstruation perpetuates even more stigma and shame: hygiene products are quietly shuffled from bag to stall, debilitating cramps are allowed no more than a whimper in public settings, and women are discouraged from validating their pain. These apparent, if unspoken, social stigmas are ingrained in girls from youth. As an article from Duke University reads, “many girls…are taught that their femininity is something to be ashamed of and therefore to be suppressed” (Ozernova, 2021).
The conversation behind normalizing menstruation is lacking, especially in schools. Menstrual health has long been an underemphasized focus in the academic setting, and period poverty disproportionately affects low-income students who rely on menstrual products purchased and stored in schools. Unfortunately, in many states, free and accessible sanitary supplies are not required in schools (Davies, 2021). A national survey of 1,000 menstruating teens found that, despite how sanitary supply accessibility is tantamount to toilet paper accessibility,1 in 5 female students in America struggle to afford period products, and 4 in 5 students reported that they, "either missed or knew someone who missed class time because they did not have access to period products" (Davies, 2021). When schools neglect to provide sanitary supplies for students or lack adequate sanitary facilities, it can inadvertently reinforce the message that menstruation is a topic that is under emphasized or even avoided altogether, further eliciting unnecessary feelings of shame (United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA], n.d.). UNICEF confirms that for many young girls, this issue “restricts their mobility and personal choices, affects attendance in school and participation in community life…[and] compromises their safety, causing additional stress and anxiety” (UNICEF, 2022).
These aforementioned issues are manifestations of period poverty in developed nations; these challenges become even more pronounced in developing countries such as India where discrimination against menstruation is more widespread. According to the Indian National Health Survey, only "64% [of women] use sanitary napkins", with a majority using “paper, old clothes, leaves, cotton, or wool pieces” (Athar, 2022; Davies, 2021). In that same country, women and girls can be excluded from daily activities on the basis that periods are “unclean” (UNFPA, n.d.). Women should not feel “othered” or uncomfortable for menstruating—a simple biological phenomenon—due to inaccessible menstrual products or for the simple act of menstruating itself. Social dialogue on menstruation must shift from discriminatory ideas of uncleanliness to appreciation for what is biologically normal.
Yet, period poverty persists on more than a social level. It is a public health crisis. When menstruating individuals resort to unhygienic alternatives—products like rags, toilet paper, and soiled pads—sanitation and reproductive health are compromised. A study from the National Library of Medicine reports, “Women who used reusable absorbent pads were more likely to have symptoms of urogenital disease than women using disposable pads” (Das et al., 2015). Moreover, these women can be at much greater risk for developing urogenital infections, among which include urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis (Kilpatrick and Rapp, 2020). Even the less severe outcomes, such as vaginal irritation and oddly colored discharge, are detriments that would not arise if women had access to the appropriate menstrual products.
Access to sanitary supplies is a right, not a luxury. Change is non-negotiable: not for the 22 million women who experience period poverty in the US and not for the 1.8 billion individuals who menstruate worldwide (Farid, 2021). Luckily, change can be accomplished, whether that be through advocating for menstrual equity in schools, initiating conversations to normalize menstruation, advocating for period positivity on social media, or hosting drives for menstrual products (Kilpatrick and Rapp, 2020). Globally, menstrual health and hygiene interventions can not only satisfy the physical demand for menstrual products, but “protect dignity, build confidence, and strengthen sexual and reproductive health” (UNICEF, 2022). Like financial poverty, period poverty is a daunting issue that will take time and effort to resolve. Unlike financial poverty, period poverty can be solved by individuals like you and me.
Alvarez, A. (2019, November 5). Period Poverty. American Medical Women's Association. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://www.amwa-doc.org/period-poverty/
Athar, U. (2022, May 11). About 50 Per Cent of Women Aged 15-24 Years Still Use Cloth for Menstrual Protection: NFHS-5. ThePrint. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://theprint.in/india/about-50-per-cent-of-women-aged-15-24-years-still-use-cloth-for-menstrual-protection-nfhs-5/951362/
Das, P., Baker, K. K., Dutta, A., Swain, T., Sahoo, S., Das, B. S., Panda, B., Nayak, A., Bara, M., Bilung, B., Mishra, P. R., Panigrahi, P., Cairncross, S., & Torondel, B. (2015). Menstrual Hygiene Practices, WASH Access and the Risk of Urogenital Infection in Women from Odisha, India. PLOS ONE, 10(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0130777
Davies, S. (2021, April 6). Period Poverty: The Public Health Crisis We Don't Talk About. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://policylab.chop.edu/blog/period-poverty-public-health-crisis-we-dont-talk-about
Farid, H. (2021, June 1). Period equity: What it is and why it matters. Harvard Health. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/period-equity-what-is-it-why-does-it-matter-202106012473
Ferst, E. (2010, March 17). Miss-menstration [Imag]. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/7Lp3kN
Kilpatrick, S., & Rapp, A. (2020, February 4). Changing the Cycle: Period Poverty as a Public Health Crisis. University of Michigan School of Public Health. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://sph.umich.edu/pursuit/2020posts/period-poverty.html
Menstrual Health. United Nations Population Fund. (n.d.). Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://www.unfpa.org/menstrual-health
Menstrual Hygiene. UNICEF. (2022). Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://www.unicef.org/wash/menstrual-hygiene
Ozernova, M. (2021, September 21). Using Storytelling to Break the Stigma Surrounding Reproductive Health. Bass Connections. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://bassconnections.duke.edu/about/news/using-storytelling-break-stigma-surrounding-reproductive-health
Witt, D. (2018, November 29). Opinion: End the Stigma Surrounding Women's Health. The Breeze. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from https://www.breezejmu.org/opinion/opinion-end-the-stigma-surrounding-women-s-health/article_33203252-f31d-11e8-82b4-1bd8da9281bf.html
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