Period poverty refers to the lack of access to essential menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management and/or education. It is concerned with the social, economic, political and cultural barriers to safe menstruation, education and sanitation. Although it affects over 27% of the menstruating population, adding up to 500 million people worldwide, the lack of awareness and research around this issue is alarming.
Period poverty is a threefold problem of the lack of education, acceptance, and access, increasingly worsening in many parts of the world, including India. This is a result of the global gender inequality that manifests itself in the form of high prices of sanitary products, lack of awareness about their usage, normalisation of stigmas around menstruation and the perpetuation of cultural ignorance as it is a “women’s problem.”
One of the most significant causes of period poverty is the ubiquity of taboos and myths surrounding menstruation and its “impurity” that are passed through generations. The shame around periods prevents people from having open dialogues regarding access to menstrual products, the chemical substances they comprise of, and their health implications. According to a 2014 report conducted by Dasra on menstrual health and hygiene in India, 70% of mothers consider menstruation to be “dirty,” eternising a culture of shame and ignorance. Although period poverty is a global health crisis, this outlook on it results in large concerns remaining unaddressed. Additionally, the report also discovered that 71% of girls in India had no knowledge of menstruation before their first period. This unpreparedness leads to shock, fear and anxiety, often resulting in school dropouts.
The inequality is further compounded with the disavowal of transgender people as menstruators. Many people still consider periods a women-only experience. Not only does this completely disregard other menstruators such as non-binary or trans people, but it also implies that all women menstruate. Many people who are not women menstruate, and not all women do. A number of infertile women or women suffering from certain medical conditions are unable to menstruate. This discussion about period poverty needs to be handled gently and with a correct, inclusive outlook. This includes our language. Otherwise, it creates additional challenges for non-women menstruators. Given that inclusiveness is not yet widely practised, many studies, including the ones referred to in this article, solely focus on women who menstruate. This can create gaps in the representation of the menstruating population.
Poor hygiene standards further aggravate the problem. For large groups of people, especially in rural areas, menstrual hygiene is almost non-existent. The scarcity of water and lack of toilets — let alone menstrual products — demonstrates how distressing the current situation is. According to official data from the Unified District Information System for Education, of the 10.83 lakh government schools in India, over 15,000 have no toilets. The study also concluded that 63 million adolescent girls lived in homes without toilet facilities, magnifying the struggle for many young menstruators.
The consequent effect of period poverty is extensive and universal. The first implication is on physical health and hygiene. Lack of access to menstrual products forces menstruators to resort to unhygienic alternatives that put individuals at a higher risk of various urogenital infections. Some people have no choice but to use menstrual products for longer than intended to save money. Leaving a tampon in for too long can increase a person’s risk of toxic shock syndrome, a rare but dangerous infection. “Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right, “ a study by AC Nielsen revealed that only 12% of India’s 355 million women use sanitary napkins. Around 70% of women in India say their family can’t afford to buy them of which 88% resort to harmful alternatives like un-sanitized cloth, ashes and husk sand. Incidents of Reproductive Tract Infection are 70% more common among these women.
The implications on mental health and well-being cannot be overlooked either. Being unable to manage your period with the appropriate products can lead to feelings of distress, discomfort and anxiety. A study conducted by BMC Women’s Health in January 2021 found a link between period poverty and mental health. Among the women who reported experiencing period poverty every month, 68.1% reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression, compared to the 43.4% of women who had never experienced poverty. Although this study had several limitations, it did present a relationship between the two variables. A comparison between countries is harder to draw since higher rates of depression are also linked with high-income inequality. Therefore, it can be difficult to conclude whether period poverty directly causes depression.
Finally, education and careers are both disrupted by this issue. Focusing on schoolwork can be extremely difficult if one is uncomfortable, distracted or unable to actively participate due to menstrual leakage or odour. This can have long term consequences by impacting attendance, self-esteem, skill development, grades and future earning potential. It has been estimated that 1 out of 5 girls drop out of school after they start menstruating. Similar effects are seen in the workforce where people are unable to participate to their full potential and consequently face significant economic implications. According to the Dasra study, 31% of women in India miss an average of 2.2 days of work per month when they menstruate. Especially for daily wage workers, this can create a dent in their financial stability, trapping them in a cycle where they once again cannot afford menstrual products.
Period poverty must be dealt with immediately. The first step is to increase education and share knowledge. Normalising menstruation and destroying taboos around this natural process within our organisations, communities, and schools is crucial. Initiating a conversation is crucial as it accelerates further research about menstruation that can help us learn how to address it better. National advocacy is an essential course of action. Menstruators need the support of the government, private firms and charitable programs to provide adequate infrastructure and access to affordable menstrual products. Finally, governments need to establish protective legislation that can ensure national access to proper facilities and hygiene products. Many governments, including India’s, have made a major breakthrough by removing the tax off of menstrual products, making them more affordable.
Period poverty is a global crisis that does not have an overnight solution. The objective is to reach a state of menstrual equity. A position where we can ensure people have the means, support, and choices to decide how they want to take care of their menstrual health. Where healthcare providers, educators and individuals ensure that menstrual health is a priority. Where sanitary products are affordable, accessible and safe.
Article by Parnika Gupta and Sia Aggarwal from the REDefine Team
Featured Artwork by Saanve Jatia
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