According to the American Medical Women's Association, period poverty is the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, including but not limited to sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management.
Access to these resources and the right to manage menstruation without shame or stigma is essential to anyone who gets a period. But, unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone.
In Kenya alone, approximately 50% of school-age girls do not have access to sanitary products (Action Aid).
How Does Period Poverty Affect Lives?
In lieu of sanitary products, many people are forced to use items like rags, paper towels, toilet paper, or cardboard. Others ration sanitary products by using them for extended amounts of time. When menstruators* resort to unhygienic alternatives, they are vulnerable to harmful physical and mental outcomes. Improper sanitary products lead to a heightened risk for urogenital infections, such as urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis. The risk of infection can be greater for females who have undergone genital mutilation, which still occurs in many developing countries. Furthermore, the emotional toll accompanying lack of access is related to poor mental health outcomes, such as elevated anxiety, depression, and distress scores (University of Michigan School of Public Health).
Not only can period poverty affect the health of individuals, but their access to education as well. In Sub-Saharan Africa, some girls will miss as much as 20% of their school year; some may drop out of school altogether (Action Aid). Because of this lack of education, young girls are more likely to enter child marriages and experience pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications as a result (Global Citizen).
And, similar to many other health disparities, the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the effects of period poverty.
For students who relied on schools to access period products, few options are currently available with these facilities shut down. And due to high rates of unemployment, many have been unable to afford necessary period products.
Why Does it Exist?
Depending on the part of the world, period poverty can be attributed to different social and economic factors.
In developing countries, periods are largely stigmatized due to differences in culture and lack of education about periods. In Nepal, for example, menstruating women are seen as impure by their community and banished to huts during their cycles. While menstrual huts are technically illegal, families continue taking the risk because these myths and misconceptions regarding menstruation are deeply rooted in Nepalese culture (Global Citizen). The non-governmental agency WoMena also conducted a study in Uganda and found many girls skipped school while on their period to avoid teasing by classmates as a result of stigma (United Nations Population Fund).
But, it’s not just developing countries that suffer from period poverty.
In the United States, lack of adequate income leads to period poverty. The “Pink Tax”, or “Tampon Tax”, contributes to period poverty as well. 35 U.S. states tax period products as non-essential items, whereas men’s grooming products are not taxed (University of Michigan School of Public Health). Additionally, food stamps do not cover menstrual products for women living below the poverty line. Schools and federal prisons have recently begun improving the accessibility within their facilities, but that is just a start. Additionally, although some countries around the world have lifted the tax on period products as luxury items, ending the tax worldwide will not single-handedly make period products affordable — too many people cannot pay for them even without the extra tax, and are often torn between purchasing food or menstrual supplies (Global Citizen)
Menstrual equity is a right, not a privilege.
Anyone can be an advocate for menstrual equity. Whether it’s writing to representatives, advocating for free products in our schools, spreading period positivity on social media, or donating to organizations who are making a difference, every action has a ripple effect. Coalitions of advocates each making even the smallest of ripples in their daily lives has the potential to give rise to seismic change (University of Michigan School of Public Health).
The term "menstruators" is used to refer to anyone who has a period. It is a more inclusive term used by many healthcare providers because it includes transgender men and non-binary people (She the People).