on the world: a view on human rights
The menstrual cycle is a biological fact of life. Nonetheless, poor public health initiatives and embarrassment mean that periods remain shrouded in myths and stigma. For many women, periods, and the days prior to and sometimes following them, are accompanied by physical and emotional discomfort and pain, and sometimes more serious conditions such as endometriosis.
In her lifetime, the average woman will use thousands of sanitary products, yet an increasing number of women face the additional challenge of period poverty: not being able to afford and/or have access to sufficient and adequate sanitary products. Not a new issue, but as one restricted to women, period poverty has not elicited as much concern as other forms of growing poverty around the world.
The result of period poverty is not simply discomfort or the risk and embarrassment of bleeding out onto clothing and elsewhere; poor menstrual hygiene and the use of old rags, socks, leaves, paper and even ash, in some countries, can lead to infection, infertility, increased maternal mortality and other medical complications.
Period poverty entered the mainstream in 2018 as the subject of the Bollywood hit film PadMan. It is based on the true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, an inventor and social entrepreneur who developed a machine that makes cheap sanitary towels after he found his own wife using dirty rags during her period due to the prohibitive cost of sanitary towels. Rather than patent his machine, he built others to empower and employ women. The technology, which has revolutionised the lives of poor women in India, is being expanded to over 100 countries. Given the taboos surrounding menstruation, this achievement came at significant personal expense.
Although the subject of documentary films and the winner of prizes for his invention, it is this mainstream dramatised telling of his story that has gotten India talking about period poverty, a country where less than half of all women use hygienic products for their periods, and even fewer use sanitary pads or tampons.
As a mainstream Bollywood film, complete with the mandatory fight with a man who beats his wife, the film does not come across as preachy and gently highlights statistics on the risks of not using hygienic sanitary protection. The use of a mainstream format with a famous lead actor has encouraged others to speak up too.
But periods and female hygiene are not a fashion trend. The dialogue (education) needs to continue in the places that cinema and social media cannot penetrate: the lives of poor and marginalised women, mainly through support for existing grassroots community and female-led initiatives.
Although one of the film’s strengths lie in the broader appeal of Bollywood far beyond the shores of India, and thus the ability to generate similar discussion further afield, whilst acknowledging the patriarchal social conventions that perpetuate this situation of poverty and ignorance, it does little to challenge them.
Period poverty is not only an issue in developing countries. Schoolgirls all over the world do not attend school for several days during their period if they cannot afford sanitary products. With the issue affecting one in ten English schoolgirls, a campaign was launched in 2017 to demand free sanitary products in schools, which has been supported by some manufacturers.
In Scotland, almost one in five women “faces period poverty due to financial struggles, with one in 10 women forced to prioritise household items like food and forego buying hygiene products.” Women use socks, toilet rolls and newspaper instead. The scene in Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake where one of the characters is caught stealing sanitary products from a shop demonstrates the extreme lengths some women have to go to during their period.
With increased dependence on foodbanks across Europe, many women turn to such facilities for sanitary products. However, with most people donating food items, foodbanks are often low on such products. In the UK, the organisation Bloody Good Period provides free sanitary products to refugee and asylum seekers; in the latter case, such women have just £5 a day to live on and cover all their needs.
Increasing conflict worldwide displacing millions, and creating a situation where in 2016, “On average, 20 people were driven from their homes every minute” and a refugee crisis, in which “nearly half of all refugees were women or girls”, means that women and girls living in refugee and camps for internally displaced persons often lack sanitary products and are at further risk given the general poor hygiene conditions in which they live.
Homeless women are particularly vulnerable to period poverty. One charity, The Homeless Period, which donates such products to women, is also campaigning to have female sanitary products provided free of charge in homeless shelters, in the same way that other items, such as condoms, are made available for men.
Patriarchal values are universal and in countries such as the United Kingdom, USA and Australia, as well as in India, additional taxes are levied on female hygiene products as lawmakers consider them “luxury” items rather than a basic essential. Women in various countries have protested such laws, in Switzerland and India, as well as free-bleeding protests outside Parliament in the UK. While some manufacturers and retailers have stepped in to address the issue, male and female politicians appear largely intransigent to the needs of half of the population.
Period poverty is a development and equality issue. Access to suitable hygiene products is a human right and a question of human dignity. While for some, the environmental impact of sanitary products is a concern, access to such products is a bigger concern for far more women.
Fighting period poverty falls under a number of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that the countries of the world have pledged to meet by 2030, including (1) an end to poverty, (4) quality education, (5) gender equality and (6) clean water and sanitation. There is no development when a large part of the community is excluded for several days every month due to social norms, poverty or both. Period poverty traps women in other forms of poverty as well.
The fact that so many schoolgirls worldwide miss out on an adequate education due to being unable to afford proper sanitary products puts them at a disadvantage compared to their male and wealthier female colleagues; it is a form of discrimination against poor women. In addition, it puts their health at risk, not to mention the discomfort, embarrassment and isolation they may face, which may have longer-term effects on their confidence and mental well-being.
Money needs to be spent on public health initiatives that raise awareness about good menstrual health. One may assume in a patriarchal world, where the value of a woman is largely predicated on her ability to bear children, that there would be more concern for her reproductive health.
Access to sanitary products is often related to other hygiene issues that constitute blocks to the equal human rights and dignity of women: access to clean water and sanitation facilities, toilets and privacy. Once more, this is not a developing world issue. Homeless women are particularly affected.
Period poverty – which cuts across race, culture, religion, but affects only poor women – has not been as popular a women’s cause as sexual harassment on social media or female genital mutilation, for example, even though almost all women have periods. The class and political implications of the issue cannot be underestimated. The indignity and shame of period poverty is a way of controlling a particular class of women, their self-perception and how they are perceived by broader (patriarchal) society. The shame and silence surrounding period poverty mean that this social control is invisible.
Reports show that access to sanitary products in US women’s prisons is often either controlled or provided at a premium unaffordable to many inmates. As one prisoner put it, having a period in prison “is an experience that either intentionally works to degrade inmates, or degrades us as a result of cost-saving measures”. In the UK, the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) has stated that the police’s failure to provide adequate sanitary products to females in custody could be in breach of their human rights and equality laws.
While the issue comes to the fore in a report or a film every once in a while, for the women and girls affected, period poverty comes every month and difficult choices have to be made. Eradicating any form of poverty does not only improve life for those immediately affected but the community as a whole. Although awareness is growing, a simple political response is lacking. Women make up half of the population; how long will we continue to be ignored?
Do your bit: today, International Women’s Day, or any other day, collect sanitary products and donate them to a local foodbank, homeless charity, women’s group, etc. to ensure that fewer women and girls in your own community have to suffer from period poverty.