People 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, handwashing facilities, or waste management.
Some countries, states, and cities around the world have passed laws mandating schools provide period products to students, deeming them as essential as toilet paper, but more work needs to be done. In fact, US federal prisons only made menstrual products free in 2018. In addition, a study from 2017 showed that nearly 1 in 5 girls had missed school due to lack of access to period products.
But efforts to recognize period poverty as an urgent issue continue to charge forward. The first global forum on period poverty is set to launch in Australia in October 2022, with the world’s top leaders in the space coming together to set goals for menstrual advocacy.
“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.
3 Key Things to Know About Period Poverty
- Poor menstrual hygiene can cause physical health risks and has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections.
- Globally, 1.7 billion people live without basic sanitation services.
- Girls with disabilities disproportionately do not have access to the facilities and resources they need for proper menstrual hygiene.
Who Is Affected?
Menstrual health is not just a women’s issue. Globally, 1.7 billion people live without basic sanitation services. In developing countries, nearly three-quarters of people lack basic handwashing facilities at home. 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 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 some communities 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. But 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.
Period shame has negative mental effects as well. It disempowers women, causing them to feel embarrassed about a normal biological process.
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
“Me and my sisters all hid our sanitary cloths under the bed to dry, out of shame,” Anita Koroma told the UN's Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, or WSSCC (now the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund), 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.
How do we shed the stigma of menstruation? Ask Scotland, which tackled period poverty by providing free sanitary products to students in 2018: https://t.co/SEb9hYmOAR#equalitymilestones@UN_Women— UN Women Australia (@UNWomenAust) January 13, 2019
“Politicians don't like this issue because it's not sexy,” Dr. Varina Tjon A Ten, a former parliamentarian in the Netherlands and a professor at The Hague University, told the WSSCC.
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 Sanitation and Hygiene Fund is working to improve sanitation and hygiene for the most vulnerable populations, supporting countries to increase "inclusive and sustainable access" to improved sanitation, hygiene, and menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) as a human right. The UN fund aims to work with partners to increase investment from both the public and private sector and provide expanded access to toilets and hygiene, such as handwashing and menstrual health, to everyone — leaving no one behind.
“It’s simple,” Hannah Neumeyer, head of human rights at menstrual hygiene education organization WASH United, explained. “Women and girls have human rights, and they have periods. One should not defeat the other.”
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 5, 2019, and has been updated.