Period poverty occurs when women or girls either struggle or are unable to locate suitable period products and adequate hygiene facilities. It affects over 500 million women and girls every year all over the world. Period poverty happens to people for a multitude of reasons and in a multitude of ways. Whether it is a person’s economic circumstances, lack of facilities, or social situation, it is a diverse and difficult form of poverty to solve. Period poverty is prevalent in every part of the world. In 2018, Plan International conducted a survey in Ireland which found that 50% of young girls and women experienced period poverty at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, period poverty affects the Global South more severely. In Kenya, for example, it was reported that 65% of women and girls were simply unable to afford period products.
Period poverty is a problem no one seems to be able to fix, and one that governments have had little appetite for solving. Until recently in many countries period products were taxed as a luxury good despite the fact they are essential for managing periods. Endometriosis, a disease that affects 190 million, was discovered in the 1800s but not fully understood till the 1920s. It is a disease that impacts the lining of the uterus and causes severe pain and infertility. However, effective treatments were not developed until the 1960s. Period poverty seems to be something that is forgotten about or at least seen as not as important as other issues. Period poverty is often left out of the discussion regardless of its effect on women, trans men, and non-binary people who menstruate. A significant reason why period poverty is frequently dismissed is how period shaming permeates our society. This is the act of shaming a woman specifically about the fact that she is on her period. This can be inflicted in a variety of ways and to different degrees but is an engrained practice in many societies. For example, the same Plan International survey in Ireland reported that 60% of young girls and women had felt shame or embarrassment surrounding their periods. There is a stigma that surrounds women on their period that they are supposedly dirty or unclean. This is reflected in the secrecy that surrounds having your period as a girl; it is simply something that you are never supposed to talk about. At home, at school and in the workplace it is seen as a faux pas to mention your period or how it affects you. If women do speak up about their periods, it is common to hear accusations of malingering or overdramatising their symptoms. Period shaming takes on its own strange rules. There is a large culture of shaming girls for using sanitary pads over tampons. This is primarily due to the narrative that tampons are cleaner or daintier. Period shaming is pervasive in society and can be perpetuated by both men and women. There can also be different cultural influences in different parts of the world that affect how young girls will see their periods.
“It is important to normalise periods and the language that we use when discussing them”
Period shaming is perpetuated by the lack of discussion and education surrounding periods. Many young girls are not properly educated on their bodies, their periods, and how to properly manage them. On the other hand, young boys and men are also not being properly educated about periods. Period shaming has at its core issues of lack of exposure and education. People are embarrassed about things that they do not understand or are not exposed to. It is important to normalise periods and the language that we use when discussing them. For example, I have made a conscious choice to use the word period product as opposed to sanitary product. There is nothing wrong with the word period and it should not be a word that must be censored.
Period shaming contributes to period poverty because if women feel ashamed and embarrassed about their periods they are unlikely to voice their concerns about sanitation and period poverty. I think it is important to acknowledge that period shaming and poverty is at its core about equality. Women and girls simply cannot live without period products. Not only is it dangerous not to for sanitary reasons, but incredibly impractical and uncomfortable. It is horrible that women are made to feel uncomfortable about a normal process of life. Period shaming contributes to a wider belief that women should simply just have to get on with it — that women should not voice their problems and demand they be taken seriously in the wider political debate. Periods are not a choice, they are a natural inevitability and should be treated as such. The more we can eradicate period shaming, the more the discussion around period poverty will become wider and more constructive.
Thankfully, things are getting better. Awareness is being raised about the problem. Governments and charity organisations are also participating in the goal of ending period poverty, implementing structures to educate and provide vital services and products to girls and women all over the world. Some vital steps have been taken by Western governments in recent years such as Canada’s abolition of the luxury tax on period products and Scotland’s huge measure in making all period products free. Period shaming is harder to solve. It is a delicate balance of education and changing social values, while not infringing on specific cultures. There is still a long way to go but it is heading in the right direction.