Since Term 3 last year, the Access to Period pilot program has provided free period products to 15 schools and kura in the Waikato region in New Zealand, covering approximately 3,2000 students. “Young people should not miss out on their education because of something that is a normal part of life for half the population.” Based on its success and positive responses, PM Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand will expand the program nationwide for all primary, intermediate, secondary schools and kura students from June, 2021.
“Removing barriers to healthy, active, educational outcomes for children and young people is an important part of the Government’s Youth and Wellbeing Strategy.” While this is praised as a landmark progress, period poverty is still affecting millions of people worldwide.
(source: POPSUGAR UK)
An average biologically-born woman spends almost 7 years bleeding, a dire problem faced by half of the world’s population. However, due to financial burdens and social stigmas, over 500 million people nowadays lack access to necessary menstrual hygiene products. Period poverty, therefore, refers to the inaccessibility of suitable period products.
Despite being an essential, period products are not covered in domestic public benefits or health insurances. Note that women are already more economically disadvantaged than men from centuries of sexism. In the US, they are 38% more likely to live in poverty, which is disproportionally harmful when considering the impact of intersectionality (e.g. race & disabilities). Even requiring a mere few dollars every month, the accumulation of over 9,000 period products over a lifetime can still become a tremendously detrimental financial responsibility, especially for the most underprivileged already struggling in poverty. Globally, 12% of women lack adequate resources to afford menstrual products. While 10% of girls in the UK lack such access, this number rises to 25% in Nigeria and 65% in Kenya.
Meanwhile, related discussions are often considered as taboos. Cultural and religious ideas have often hampered progress throughout history. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir depicts the root of period shaming. Historically, menstruating women are considered sinful by various ancient religious texts and even excluded to leave their family domain for fear of the bad luck they might carry.
Within the status quo, menstruating women in countries such as Nepal and India are still viewed as “impure and polluted.” While forcibly confined in their households, women have died from accidents and serious illnesses during this practice. Although less explicitly, period shaming has still presented itself in more subtle forms. In relatively progressive regions such as the US, nearly half of women have experienced period shaming including misunderstanding, fear, embarrassment, and discrimination.
Centuries of period shaming has made it more difficult to raise awareness to combat period poverty. Women are less likely to seek out for help once they internalize the attached social stigmas. On the other hand, the generally uptight atmosphere for discourse has subdued many potentially meaningful discussions centered around educational improvements and progressive policies, forming an adverse cycle for social progress.
Period poverty has pushed millions into severe physical and mental health risks. Women lacking sanitary products are likely to suffer from hygiene infections, as well as increasing negative emotions of shame and embarrassment. In addition, the inconveniences it brings also significantly hinders women to reach their full self-actualization. As Arden indicated that 1 in 12 children have missed school, as many as 49% of girls also have missed “an entire day of school” in the UK due to period poverty. While more are suffering from extreme poverty during the pandemic, period poverty is more likely to happen as well. In addition, women in rural regions now further lack resources, since it is more difficult to rely on previously fixed community access. According to the UN report with samples of women aged 13 to 35, 58% state that they now have less money to buy period products and 50% state it is now harder to get menstrual materials.
Since 2020, we have witnessed the US providing subsidies for period products, Scotland becoming the first country to provide free period products, New Zealand following its footsteps, and increasing global activist efforts. While there is no simple immediate solution, it is crucial to take baby steps to tackle period poverty and promote gender equality.