Updated: Jun 12
The cost of bleeding is high.
What is period poverty?
Access to period products, functioning toilets, clean water, and other sanitation resources is essential to all those who menstruate. Good education about menstrual hygiene for all genders and the ability to manage menstruation without shame or stigma is also a necessity. Yet, millions of individuals worldwide live without access to these necessities and this knowledge. This issue has been termed “period poverty”.
Period Poverty around the world
According to the World Bank, at least 500 million people globally lack access to the facilities they need to manage their periods. 1.25 billion people who menstruate do not have access to a safe private toilet, while 526 million do not have a toilet at all.
Period Poverty and the SDGs
The issue of period poverty cannot be viewed through the narrow lens of a single SDG. It lies at the intersection of multiple different SDGs like SDG 1: No Poverty, SDG 3: Good Health and Well Being, SDG 5: Gender Equality, and SDG 10: Reducing Inequalities.
People living in poverty are unable to access period products. Around the world, menstrual products are classified as “non-essentials” and taxed as luxury items, making them even more inaccessible to impoverished people. By addressing period poverty, we would also be moving towards achieving the goals of SDG 1 (No Poverty).
When period products aren’t accessible, people are forced to use items like paper, rags and grass instead. This can be dangerous and causes a high risk of infections. The major shame and stigma around periods can also lead to psychological difficulties. Good health and well-being (SDG 3), both physical and mental, is essential to sustainable development and cannot be achieved while menstrual health issues persist.
(Also read: The State of Indian Female Manual Scavengers in 2022)
As menstruation predominantly affects women and girls, who are more likely to be underpaid at work and have difficult financial situations, the added cost of period products does not do them any benefits when trying to escape the cycle of poverty. Gender inequality (SDG 5) is therefore a major factor to consider while looking to address period poverty. Moreover, the jargon around menstruation is generally along the line of “feminine products” and “for women and girls”. This creates an alienating atmosphere for the people who menstruate but are not women or girls and for the women and girls who don’t menstruate at all. There are simple solutions to this issue, for example, using non-gendered terms when talking about menstruation like “people who menstruate” or “menstruators”, and making period education compulsory for people of all genders.
(Also Read: Death in Debt: Underpaid Women at Work)
Other intersecting identities also play a part in determining who is at a higher risk of being impacted by period poverty. For example, people belonging to a lower caste are more likely to be earning less and to be unable to afford period products. Similarly, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be treated unequally in society, leading to a lack of housing and employment opportunities, poverty, and the subsequent inability to afford period products. Working towards reducing the issues of period poverty would also work towards achieving the goals of SDG 10, Reducing Inequalities.
Places fighting against period poverty
In November 2020, Scotland became the first country to make period products free for all. The Period Products Bill was passed unanimously by Scottish lawmakers and it ensures that “everyone in Scotland who menstruates can have reasonably convenient access to period products, free of charge, as and when they are required. This includes visitors to Scotland for the duration of their stay.”
The bill is very inclusive and acknowledges that certain people face additional barriers to accessing these free products. To reduce these barriers, it creates special provisions for disabled people, homeless people, victims of domestic abuse, people living in remote areas, etc. It is a big step against period poverty.
New Zealand followed suit in 2021 by providing free period products in schools all over the country. France’s universities were also instructed to install free tampon and pad dispensers. Similarly, in Botswana and Kenya, free period products are available to girls in public schools. Countries are recognizing the need to eliminate period poverty by facing it head-on.
India too, experienced a big win against period poverty in 2018 when its 12% tax on sanitary products was eliminated after months of campaigning by activists. Another big step was taken on 10 April 2023, when the Supreme Court of India directed the Central Government to make a uniform policy for providing free sanitary pads to girls studying in classes 6 to 12 in government schools.
Suggestions to address period poverty in India
India has over 355 million menstruating women and girls, but millions of these women face uncomfortable and undignified experiences with menstrual health management. Here are a few ways the situation can be improved.
Reducing the stigma around menstruation through education and awareness programs is a necessity. We cannot hope to address period poverty or even gender equality without eliminating this stigma.
The best way to act on the issue would be by making free sanitary products available to people living below the poverty line and mandating all education institutions in the country to install free sanitary pad dispensers. This increase in accessibility will also reduce drop-out rates and help to increase the attendance rates of girls in educational institutions.
Menstrual health and hygiene are currently not a research priority in our country. Providing more funding towards this kind of research can help us come up with innovative ways to help while also reducing the stigma of the topic.
Individuals can help by donating sanitary products to homeless shelters or slums. We can even help by simply starting conversations about the issue in our communities. By creating awareness and providing period education to all, we open the doorway to innovation. People can come up with community initiatives working towards ending the issue. These conversations can also encourage other individuals to donate sanitary products where they are needed. So go out there and start conversations! They help!
Sharma, S., Mehra, D., Brusselaers, N., & Mehra, S. (2020). Menstrual Hygiene Preparedness Among Schools in India: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of System-and Policy-Level Actions. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(2), 647. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17020647
The Scottish Government. (2021). Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021: guidance – September 2021. The Scottish Government. https://www.gov.scot/publications/period-products-free-provision-scotland-act-2021-guidance-responsible-bodies-september-2021/
World Bank Group. (2018b). Menstrual Hygiene Management Enables Women and Girls to Reach Their Full Potential. World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2018/05/25/menstrual-hygiene-management
Infographic: End the stigma. Period. (n.d.). UN Women – Headquarters. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/multimedia/2019/10/infographic-periods
BBC News. (2018, July 21). India scraps tampon tax after campaign. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-44912742