Period Poverty - a person giving another a sanitary towel

Period Poverty

What Is It And How Can We Tackle It?

Period poverty is something that affects women, girls and other people who menstruate across the world, yet it often goes unnoticed and is overlooked by society. Initiatives to tackle the issue often aren’t prioritised by governments and policymakers, meaning that up to 500 million women and girls experience period poverty every single month. 

What is period poverty?

If someone is experiencing period poverty, they lack the necessary materials and/or supportive environment needed to menstruate comfortably. For example, they might lack access to sanitary products like tampons and pads due to financial constraints, they might be without adequate washing facilities and toilets, or they might experience stigma from others when on their period. To tackle period poverty, all of these issues must be addressed. 

As well as making periods much more difficult to cope with each month, period poverty can have direct effects on other aspects of a person’s life. Many girls miss school while on their period due to fear of stigma, not having sufficient sanitary products or not being able to change and dispose of those products while at school. These missed school days are a barrier to education for girls and exacerbate gender inequality as boys are not forced to miss school in the same way. 

Physical discomfort is also a key issue for those experiencing period poverty. Often women and girls unnecessarily put up with side effects of menstruation, such as severe pain, as they are unaware that such symptoms are not always just a normal part of a period and can be treated. Lack of education about periods is a serious issue across much of the world; poor understanding of periods combined with stigma or difficulty accessing health care stops many women and girls visiting the doctor if they experience period-related health issues, leading to unnecessary suffering. Lack of access to proper sanitary products can also lead to health problems. For example, some women and girls have no choice but to use dirty rags to absorb blood, which can cause infections.    

Mothers of the Forest with a sewing machine
Image: The Word Forest Organisation

Period poverty around the world

Period poverty occurs across the globe, in both low- and high-income countries. However, those living in low-income nations are often worse affected as they tend to lack more of the components required for comfortable menstruation — they’re less likely to have access to running water and proper washing facilities and often experience more extreme stigma, leading to feelings of fear and shame. 

An example of extreme stigma around periods is the ancient Hindu tradition of chhaupadi, a practice that still takes place in Nepal as well as parts of India and Bangladesh. During their periods, women and girls are viewed as ‘impure’ and banished to huts, sheds or barns where they must sleep in unsafe, unhygienic environments, sometimes among livestock. Those menstruating are also stopped from partaking in certain activities, like entering the kitchen, handling food or attending religious events due to their supposed impurity. Chhaupadi is not widespread, but it does still occur, even though it was banned by the Nepalese Supreme Court in 2005 for being a human rights violation. Women have died due to chhaupadi; in 2019, a Napalese woman and her two young sons died as a result of smoke inhalation as they desperately tried to keep warm in a menstrual hut. While most women and girls thankfully don’t experience chhaupadi, millions around the world are made to feel embarrassed, shamed or dirty while on their period. Education around periods aimed at both girls and boys is a key way that this stigma can be addressed.  

Period poverty is also a huge issue in Africa; many women and girls have no access to menstrual hygiene products or WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities. This leads to an estimated 1 in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa being forced to miss school as they either don’t have access to sanitary products or their schools lack safe, private toilets. According to ActionAid, about half of school-age girls in Kenya do not have access to sanitary products. For those that can get hold of them, disposing of used products is often a challenge due to lack of appropriate facilities to do so. Women and girls in Africa also experience stigma — studies have found that being teased due to menstruation causes girls to miss school in countries like Uganda.

Solving period poverty for those experiencing other kinds of poverty is strongly tied to improving infrastructure, for example, providing better washing, toilet and disposal facilities and improving education to incorporate facts about periods, how to deal with them and why they should not be stigmatised. Many charities, including The Word Forest Organisation, are working to address period poverty for the world’s poorest, and some governments are taking action. For example, Rwanda removed VAT on sanitary products last year in a bid to make them more affordable. 

Kenyan woman making a sanitary pad
Image: The Word Forest Organisation

It’s important to also remember that period poverty affects many women and girls in high-income nations, such as the UK and US. One in 10 girls in the UK have been unable to afford sanitary products, and 1 in 7 have struggled to afford them, leading them to miss school. Women and girls in high-income countries also experience stigma — almost half of girls aged 14-21 in the UK are embarrassed about their periods and 71 percent feel embarrassed when buying sanitary products. The UK government announced this year that it would scrap the so-called “tampon tax” — the 5 percent VAT added to sanitary products — and make sanitary products free for those attending state schools. 

What is The Word Forest Organisation doing to tackle period poverty?

Our women’s empowerment group, the Mothers of the Forest, forms the backbone of our reforestation work in Kenya, where period poverty is rife. They do not have access to disposable sanitary products and even if they did, they lack ways to properly dispose of them. That’s why we’ve helped the Mothers of the Forest to create their own reusable and washable sanitary towels. Not only are they more eco-friendly than disposables, they are far more practical and cost-effective for the Mothers. If you’re interested in making your own reusable sanitary pads, watch our ‘how to’ video here. The Word Forest Organisation also helps to facilitate education in Kenya, which is a key element of ending period poverty.   

How you can help

There are many ways that you as an individual can help end period poverty. Start today to help create a fairer world with less physical and mental suffering. 

  1. Donate 

There are a multitude of charities working to tackle period poverty around the world. Making a donation will help them to sustain their work and further their impact. You could also buy and donate sanitary products to those who cannot afford them via your local food bank.  

  1. Campaign 

Sign petitions, write to your local MP and advocate to end period poverty. While the UK government has committed to making sanitary products free in state schools, this does not cover everyone who struggles to afford them. Scotland is on its way to being the first country to make sanitary products free to everyone who needs them; let’s make sure other countries follow suit!

  1. Talk

A huge problem is the stigma that surrounds menstruation. Periods shouldn’t be taboo, and no one should be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed about their period. Chat to people you know about periods, it will help to normalise them. Call people out if they’re making someone feel embarrassed about their period and educate others about period poverty, why it’s a problem and what they can do to help.

Rachel Baxter and The Team

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