Written by Gabriela Zuntová
Menstruation, or colloquially referred to as the “period”, is a phenomenon that roughly half of the world’s population experiences, as women become of reproductive age. Described as the “process in which the uterus sheds blood and tissue through the vagina” (UNFPA, 2021), menstruation is among the most natural processes that human beings are confronted with. It is a sign of health and prosperity, and signals that women’s bodies are undergoing an important transition. Unfortunately, however, not all human beings are equated with the same privileges in adequately tending to their “time of the month”. It is estimated that 1.8 billion people menstruate on a monthly basis (Carneiro, 2021), be it women, transgender men, or non-binary persons. Out of this number, however, only around 500 million have access to adequate hygiene products and sanitary services (World Bank, 2018). Those ca. 1.3 billion that do not are then faced with what is known as “period poverty”. This discrepancy between available resources for tending to a basic biological process then introduces a paradox: access to period products should be treated as a human right, yet it is rather a luxury.
Period poverty is a term that encompasses the struggles that low-income individuals face in affording menstrual products because of their economic, political or social situation (UNFPA, 2021). Period poverty often creates the need for resorting to makeshift substitutes, such as newspapers or banana peels, introducing a plethora of health risks (Friends of UNFPA, n.d.). Some of these risks include vaginal infections, reproductive tract infections, or even blood clots if the person has undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) – a common practice in certain regions of Africa (UNESCO, 2014). In some cases, women even engage in transactional sex in exchange for period products (UNFPA 2021). This poses risks of exploitation, as well as unplanned pregnancy. Therefore, period poverty strongly undermines the right to health, as the lack of adequate sanitary products and engaging in unsafe sex can introduce sometimes irreversible health conditions.
While the most common symptom of period poverty is the price of menstrual products, the availability of infrastructure also poses a problem. Many individuals are faced with a lack of quality WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities, especially in public places. This results in menstruating people having to utilize toilets without doors that can be safely closed and lacking available ways to dispose of used pads or to wash hands (World Bank, 2018). The issue of infrastructure as just described is commonly encompassed by the term menstrual health management (MHM) (Rossouw and Ross, 2021, p. 1). MHM results in the hindrance of menstruating people’s dignity (ibid). The lack of WASH facilities as part of period poverty thus undermines the right to water and sanitation, which serves as a basic prerequisite for managing MHM (UNFPA 2021).
Period poverty is not exclusive to any region of the world, as some would be led to believe. In fact, the price of menstruation products presents problems worldwide. A study conducted in the US demonstrated that the average woman spends $13.25 a month on menstrual products, making that “$6,360 in an average woman’s reproductive lifetime” (Sadlier, 2021). Therefore, even those living in industrialized nations can suffer from period poverty due to economic disadvantages. The case of the US also points to period poverty among prison inmates and homeless individuals, which are most likely to suffer from this phenomenon (Bobel et al., 2020).
However, certain parts of the world possess cultural beliefs, which further exacerbate period poverty by deeming menstruation a taboo (Friends of UNFPA, n.d.). In such instances, girls are pressured into keeping their menstruating status a secret, which is a challenge in settings with inadequate MHM (Crichton et al., 2013, p. 903). Such practices then contribute to the stigmatization of menstruation and subject girls into staying at home for the duration of their period, out of fear of leakage, odour, and consequent embarrassment (idem, p. 904). Therefore, in such contexts, this results in school absenteeism, which then hampers their right to education. As menstruation stigmas force girls to not attend school, their performance suffers (Tegegne and Sisay, 2014). This then impacts their educational opportunities in the longer term, as well as their future economic status.
Although the subject of period poverty remains grim and often feels hopeless, thankfully, a plethora of organizations work on combatting the phenomenon. Examples include Period, which distributes sanitary products to those in need in the US. Days for Girls (DfG), active in Kenya, develops menstrual product kits that are reusable, sustainable and last up to three years. Additionally, the UN has coined May 28 the “Menstrual Hygiene Day”, where each year, awareness is raised about the subject through annual themes (UNFPA, 2021). This year, the UNFPA, UNICEF and UNESCO collaborated on the first ever digital symposium on menstrual health in Central and West Africa (ibid). Therefore, despite the progress being slow, action is being taken on combatting the issue.
This short essay has argued that period poverty undermines three universally agreed human rights – the right to health, the right to water and sanitation, and the right to education. Considering that menstruation is a biological process out of one’s control, it is abhorrent that sanitary products are not free and widely distributed. Period poverty is a human rights issue that transcends to issues of social exclusion, gender equality, and economic status. One can only hope that in the future, more initiative is taken toward tackling this issue.
Babbar, K., Martin, J., Ruiz, J., Parray, A. A., & Sommer, M. (2021). Menstrual health is a public health and human rights issue. The Lancet Public Health.
Bobel, C., Winkler, I., Fahs, B. et al. (2020). The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Palgrave Macmillan.
Carneiro, M. M. (2021). Menstrual Poverty: enough is enough. Women and Health, 61:8, 721-722.
Crichton, J., Okal, J., Kabiru, C. W., & Zulu, E. M. (2013). Emotional and psychosocial aspects of menstrual poverty in resource-poor settings: a qualitative study of the experiences of adolescent girls in an informal settlement in Nairobi. Health care for women international, 34(10), 891-916.
Friends of UNFPA (n.d.). Left in the Dark: How Period Taboos Put Women and Girls at Risk. Retrieved on December 1, 2021, from https://www.friendsofunfpa.org/left-in-the-dark-how-period-taboos-put-women-and-girls-at-risk/
Rossouw, L., & Ross, H. (2021). Understanding Period Poverty: Socio-Economic Inequalities in Menstrual Hygiene Management in Eight Low-and Middle-Income Countries. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(5), 2571.
Sadlier, A. (2021). New research reveals how much the average woman spends per month on menstrual products. SWNS Digital, September 6.
Tegegne, T. K., & Sisay, M. M. (2014). Menstrual hygiene management and school absenteeism among female adolescent students in Northeast Ethiopia. BMC public health, 14, 1118.
UNESCO (2014). Good Policy and Practice in Health Education: Puberty Education & Menstrual Hygiene Management.
UNFPA (2021). Menstruation and human rights – Frequently asked questions, United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved on November 29, 2021 from https://www.unfpa.org/menstruationfaq#Period%20Poverty
UNFPA (2021). Menstrual Hygiene Day. United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved on December 20, 2021 from https://www.unfpa.org/events/menstrual-hygiene-day
World Bank (2018, May 25). Menstrual Hygiene Management Enables Women and Girls to Reach Their Full Potential. Retrieved on November 30, 2021 from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2018/05/25/menstrual-hygiene-management