Women and young girls who menstruate are ostracized from basic activities, like eating certain foods, or socializing, all over the world. The cultural shame attached to menstruation and a shortage of resources stop women from going to school and working every day. Period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and, or, waste management.
A handful of US states have passed laws mandating schools provide period products to students, deeming them as essential as toilet paper, but more work needs to be done. Federal prisons only made menstrual products free in 2018. Activists recently organized a petition and march to put pressure on the Department of Education to eradicate period poverty in the US. They called on the government to treat period products as health necessities, support policies that protect students who menstruate, and fund period products in school bathrooms.
“Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity, and public health,” Sanjay Wijesekera, former UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene said.
Inadequate menstrual hygiene is not a unique problem women in the US face. It affects populations in the developed and developing world, and women living in poverty are especially vulnerable.
Here’s everything you need to know about this serious human rights concern.
Who is affected?
Menstrual health is not just a women’s issue. Globally, 2.3 billion people live without basic sanitation services and in developing countries, only 27% of people have adequate handwashing facilities at home, according to UNICEF. Not being able to use these facilities makes it harder for women and young girls to manage their periods safely and with dignity.
Girls with special needs and disabilities disproportionately do not have access to the facilities and resources they need for proper menstrual hygiene. Living in conflict-affected areas, or in the aftermath of natural disasters, also makes it more difficult for women and girls to manage their periods.
Young boys benefit from menstrual hygiene education, too. Educating girls and boys on menstruation at an early age at home and school promotes healthy habits and breaks stigmas around the natural process. Achieving menstrual equity means access to sanitary products, proper toilets, hand washing facilities, sanitation and hygiene education, and waste management for people around the world all.
What are the main causes?
Menstruation is stigmatized around the world. 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 myths and misconceptions are deeply rooted in Nepalese culture. The non-governmental agency WoMena conducted a study in Uganda and found many girls skipped school while on their period to avoid teasing by classmates.
Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity, and public health.
Sanjay Wijesekera, former UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
Many girls and women also cannot afford menstrual materials. The tampon tax, known as the “pink tax,” is named for the frequent marketing of the color pink toward women. Although some countries around the world have lifted the tax on period products as luxury items, others continue to use it as a form of gender-based discrimination. Ending the tax worldwide will not single-handedly make period products affordable — too many people cannot pay for them at all and are often torn between purchasing food or menstrual supplies. In Bangladesh, many families cannot afford menstrual products and use old clothing, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). And in India, only 12% of menstruators have access to sanitary products, leaving the rest to use unsafe materials like rags and sawdust as an alternative, the Indian ministry of health reported.
Why is it a problem?
Poor menstrual hygiene can cause physical health risks and has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections, according to UNICEF. It also stops women from reaching their full potential when they miss out on opportunities crucial to their growth. Young girls who do not receive an education are more likely to enter child marriages and experience an early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications as a result.
Girls' periods affect their #SDGs, especially school attendance. #Tanzania's WomenChoice Industries produce affordable menstrual products to end period poverty. They're also the winner of our #SDGsAndHer Competition w/ @WorldBank, @wharton & @UN_Women! https://t.co/2w7MvOKTStpic.twitter.com/KE6caBvSFN— UN Development (@UNDP) August 30, 2018
Period shame has negative mental effects as well. It disempowers women, causing them to feel embarrassed about a normal biological process.
“Me and my sisters all hid our sanitary cloths under the bed to dry, out of shame,” Anita Koroma told the organization Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) of growing up in Sierra Leone.
On the contrary, menstruators should feel proud and confident in their ability to thrive within their societies.
How can we stop it?
The first step is to normalize menstruation and destroy taboos around the natural process. Then policy must be enforced to make menstrual products, sanitation and hygiene easily accessible. Activists and advocates are demanding that governments prioritize menstrual equity policy, but historically the issue has presented a challenge.
“Politicians don't like this issue because it's not sexy,” said Dr. Varina Tjon A Ten, a former parliamentarian in the Netherlands and a professor at The Hague University.
Organizations like MINA Foundation are not waiting on the government to take action — they provide young women with menstrual products to help them stay in school.
On a global level, the WSSCC is working to improve sanitation and hygiene for the most vulnerable populations. The organization aims to break the menstruation stigma and change national policy through education and behavior change with initiatives like hosting menstrual waste workshops in West and Central Africa, and promoting toilet designs that can handle menstrual material waste in India.
“It’s simple,” head of human rights at WASH United, Hannah Neumeyer explained, “women and girls have human rights, and they have periods. One should not defeat the other.”