The term “Period Poverty” refers to the economic inaccessibility of women and girls to afford menstrual supplies. Research has revealed that the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products has played an integral role in adversely impacting girls’ education. Absenteeism during one’s menstrual cycle has compelled girls to drop out of school altogether. For members from marginalized communities, a box of sanitary napkins is a luxury. Not only does this take a toll on girls’ education, but it also impacts their health and all-rounded development.
Figure 1: How big of an issue is period poverty?
The stigma around menstruation
Although menstruation is a biological process that women and girls experience, it is still often considered an inappropriate topic of discussion in several places around the world. In addition to ending period poverty, there is also a need to promote menstrual equity – the easy accessibility to menstrual hygiene products.
The need to encourage menstrual equity stems from society not giving it the attention it deserves. Women's discrimination and marginalization due to period stigma compel them to never openly speak about their experiences with a natural process termed “dirty” or “culturally disoriented.” Education and conversation is a critical pre-requisite to changing society’s perception of menstrual health and equity to normalize discussions around menstruation.
What do the numbers say?
> According to World Bank, 500 million girls worldwide cannot access basic hygiene supplies to manage their periods effectively.
> In America, 21.4 million women live in poverty, which can make period products expensive and inaccessible.
> 1 in 5 teenagers surveyed in the United States have struggled to afford period products, according to a 2019 white paper supported by Thinx and PERIOD.
> According to a survey conducted by Plan International UK, nearly half of the girls in the UK have missed a day of school because of their period, and 1 in 10 have been unable to afford menstrual products.
> In many East and South African countries, students unable to meet the expenses of period products are coerced to engage in transactional sex to obtain resources. In one study, 2 out of 3 pad users in rural Kenya received them from sexual partners.
As the numbers suggest, menstrual hygiene management is a problem in low-income families in low and high-income countries, significantly impacting education, health, and general well-being. It has only exacerbated the cultural beliefs and assumptions surrounding menstruation. Traditional connotations with evil spirits, shame, and embarrassment accompanying sexual reproduction frequently combine cultural norms and religious taboos on menstruation. Instead of being recognized as a natural bodily function, it has become an issue of global significance that requires the attention of individuals and organizations alike.
Period poverty and its impact on education
According to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, when girls miss school because of their periods, it puts them 145 days behind their male counterparts. Any activity that excludes female participants due to menstrual cycles feeds inferiority complexes. Absenteeism during one’s menstrual cycle is one of the primary reasons why girls tend to drop out of school entirely. For instance, 23 million girls in India tend to drop out of school entirely due to periods. This trend is common in developing countries, where homemaking is preferred over girls' education due to gender and cultural stereotypes.
Figure 2: The impact of period policy on teenage students in the United States
As illustrated in the graph above, the stigma around menstruation might adversely impact women in various facets of education. Not receiving a complete education and being forced into an early marriage in developing countries also inevitably leads to a reduced capacity to access employment and income generation, a severe repercussion holding women back.
Period Poverty and its impact on Mental Health
Instead of empowering women to manage their menstruation safely, the lack of access to period supplies is now leading to another issue of global significance – mental health. Women's unmet menstrual health needs are responsible for mental health issues among girls and women worldwide. According to a study conducted by U by Kotex and Alliance for Period Supplies, period poverty is directly linked with self-perception and mental health. Several instances when girls cannot afford period supplies are also linked with the disappointment and embarrassment they experience when discussing their menstrual hygiene. When girls are limited by something as natural and normal as their period, it can lead to anxiousness, a sense of inferiority, and insecurity.
Figure 3: The vicious cycle linked to period poverty
Not only do instances like these lead to low confidence and low self-esteem, but they also create further barriers to education in the form of mental health issues stemming from a natural bodily process that is misperceived by society, even in the 21st century. As suggested above, staying home due to period poverty can reinforce feelings of ignominy and loneliness, which can compound into depression.
Period poverty is a persisting issue that demands our attention. Although various organizations like PERIOD (U.S.) and Myna Mahila Foundation (India), among others, strive to improve menstrual access for women, menstruation disproportionately continues to impact thousands of women and girls worldwide. Not only is this a public health issue, but it also constitutes a human rights issue since it affects the ability of girls to embark on their liberties and lives with dignity. Period poverty must be addressed through policy, education, and advocacy efforts to ensure that everyone has access to menstrual products and facilities and is free from stigma and discrimination related to menstruation.
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3) Elflein, J. (2021) Negative impact of period poverty on schooling U.S. 2021, Statista.
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8) Thinx + PERIOD (2019). State of the Period: The widespread impact of period poverty on US students.
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11) 98% of people back SDLP legislation to end period poverty (no date) Social Democratic and Labour Party.