You may have heard the term “period poverty” recently, though probably not as much as you should. Period poverty is a serious issue that we should all be worried about, but unfortunately the stigma around menstruation and “female issues” means this subject often doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Why period poverty matters
In countries all over the world, menstruation is used as a form of shame. Women and girls are often banned from basic activities while menstruating. They may not be allowed to eat certain foods, socialize with others, or may even be banned from sleeping in the family home. Furthermore, many women and girls can’t afford to buy sanitary products. A combination of this and cultural shame can stop women and girls from going to school or work, which can have severe impacts on their lives over the long term. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, girls may miss as much as 20% of their schooling because of their period.
Poverty doesn’t just affect women and girls’ ability to afford adequate sanitary products. The conditions people live in can also impact their menstrual health and hygiene, both generally and more specifically in relation to their menstruation. According to Global Citizen, around 2.3 billion people around the world do not have access to basic sanitation services. Even more worryingly, only 27% of people living in developing countries have proper facilities to wash their hands at home. Both of these factors mean it is more difficult for women and girls to stay safe and protect their dignity while menstruating. This issue is more severe for girls with disabilities or special needs, as well as those living in areas affected by conflict or natural disasters.
More broadly, governments and authorities often fail to treat menstrual products as essential. In the US, menstrual products were only recently made free for inmates in federal prisons, even though these are basic items that should be made available as an essential items.
In short, safe menstruation and hygiene is a basic human right. Providing the supplies and support necessary for women and girls to meet their hygiene needs is therefore essential to protect their human rights. That’s how serious this issue is and why we need to take it seriously.
Period poverty in the UK
You may think that period poverty is only an issue in the developing world. After all, this has the word “poverty” in its name, something we don’t usually associate with Europe or North America. However, this problem affects countries all over the globe, including some of the wealthiest, and period poverty UK is all too real. 1 in 14 girls in the UK report having missed school because they’ve didn’t have or couldn’t afford to buy sanitary products.
The truth is that too many people in the UK live in poverty of some kind, and period poverty is just one consequence of this. In fact, 22% of UK households live below the poverty line. The figures are even starker for children: 31% of all UK children live in households below the poverty line.
What can be done?
Addressing period poverty means ensuring that all women, girls, and people who menstruate globally have:
- Access to adequate menstrual products
- Access to safe, hygienic spaces to use these menstrual products
- The right to manage their menstruation without shame or stigma
Tackling this issue has many aspects, from advocating for changes to government policy and new legislation to educating girls and addressing stigma against menstruation.
Here are some concrete steps that individuals, businesses, and organizations can take against period poverty:
- Educate pre-adolescent and adolescent girls about menstruation and how to safely manage their periods
- Donate supplies of sanitary pads and other sanitary products to women and girls who can’t afford to buy them
- Teach women and girls to make their own cheap, safe, and reliable sanitary products if they don’t have access to them
- Promote open conversations about menstruation to break the stigma and encourage information sharing
- Assist women and girls in developing countries to get better access to running water, hand washing facilities, and other sanitary services
Governments should also introduce policies and laws that treat menstruation as an important and normal part of human life, and menstrual products, hand washing facilities, and sanitation infrastructure as essential for basic human rights.
Making sure that women and girls can manage their menstruation safely and with dignity means they will be able to focus on their studies or professional lives, without being distracted or shamed. Having proper sanitary products means they will be able to fully focus on their studies or work without absences due to their period. They’ll also be able to break through the stigma associated with menstruation, openly discuss the topic, which in turn encourages better knowledge and education on the subject, thus protecting their health and wellbeing.