Rachel kept her struggle a secret from her partner. Rachel didn’t tell anyone the extent of her dismal situation out of shame and the deep-seated belief that the topic of periods is taboo. It is saddening to know that Rachel’s situation is not unique. Countless women have experienced period poverty; however, women and allies are taking a stand against it in what some are calling the “menstruation movement.” Are you ready to join the movement?
Across the globe, more than 800 million people menstruate daily. Of that 800 million people, 96 million have been forced to create make- shift hygiene products that may be ineffective, unhygienic, and ultimately unsafe. Without access to tampons, pads, and other forms of period protection, women must resort to using common items such as rags, toilet paper, or old newspapers. Even in the world’s most prosperous countries, people deal with the complications caused by lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and waste management. These people are experiencing period poverty.
With that being said, period poverty is not just a woman’s issue. 2.3 billion people live without basic sanitation services. In developing countries, like South Africa, only 27% of people have adequate handwashing facilities in their homes, according to a UNICEF study conducted in 2018. Not having access to these types of facilities makes it even harder for women and young girls to manage their periods safely and with dignity; additionally, there are also sanitary hazards that are bound to arise within these developing communities due to inefficient sanitation services, or lack thereof, that would impact the entire community, not just women and girls.
Other situations where hygiene products are scarce includes women and girls with disabilities not being able to get access to resources in their living facilities in order to conduct menstrual hygiene safely. Another situation where the stock of hygiene products is depleted happens in conflict-affected areas or areas hit by natural disasters. Of course, all resources are scarce in these types of tragedy, but it is far more difficult for women and girls to manage their periods due to other resources and needs taking precedent over menstrual needs.
Period poverty is also a man’s issue. Many young girls go to their mothers for help when they first get their period. However, many children lose their mothers at a young age or are raised by single fathers. These girls can find themselves without the essential knowledge to deal with their periods or with period poverty if the men in their lives don’t know anything about it.
Additionally, if fathers don’t have candid conversations with their children, both boys and girls, about menstruation it can lead to stigma and shame that will stick with these girls all the way into adulthood. Having open conversations will stop the marginalization of young girls who don’t feel comfortable asking for menstrual products and can help dissuade girls to stop skipping school while menstruating.
STEPS BEING TAKEN TO END THIS CRISIS
Much like the girls around the world who miss days of school every month because they can’t access the products they need, Rachel found herself spending more and more time at home to avoid going out and risking being embarrassed over a leak. Rachel began to use a birth control implant with the hopes that she would no longer experience periods regularly; however, the implant made her bleed for 25 out of every 28 days. She was then forced to ration her menstrual products. Rachel sometimes had to wear a single sanitary pad for up to 20 hours instead of the 3 to 4 hours recommended by the manufacturer. Rachel was also forced to free bleed at least two to three days every week, ruining her jeans and further isolating Rachel from life outside her home. Stories like Rachel’s have led to government leaders in various countries becoming aware of the adversities that women are facing and taking a hard look at the stigma surrounding menstruation.
Some countries, like Scotland and New Zealand, are shining examples of what countries need to do in order to progress forward and combat Period Poverty. In June 2020, New Zealand took a step towards change by offering period products free in school. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, said that offering free period products would help over 95,000 girls who are unable to afford the products attend school during their period. “By making [period products] freely available, we support these young people to continue learning at school,” Ardern said in a statement to the press.
The learning no longer stops at just sex education. Schools in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland take a more progressive approach to sex education unlike schools in the United States where the conservative approach to the topic creates a culture-like environment for unhealthy stigma to grow like bacteria. The progressive and positive approach to sex education, more specifically pertaining to the topic of menstruation, is aimed at educating both boys and girls so they better understand what menstruation is in order to remove the stigma surrounding the subject. Better education and understanding of menstruation are key to improving health outcomes for women all around the world. Normalising menstruation as a natural, healthy part of the female life cycle is of the utmost importance because menstruation stigma is just one of many systemic factors that perpetuate gender inequality, but it often goes on ignored.
Scotland has taken one giant leap forward in the fight to combat Period Poverty. In November 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free. The “Period Products Bill” puts a legal duty on authorities in Scotland to ensure that anyone who needs period products can get them for free. After reviewing statistics like how one in four survey respondents at school, college, or university in Scotland had struggled to access period products, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) unanimously approved the bill. Labour MSP Monica Lenno, who has been campaigning to end period poverty since 2016, introduced the bill with two goals in mind: increasing accessibility and tackling period stigma. With the pandemic still underway, this piece of legislation became crucial to the health and welfare of Scottish citizens. Lenno stated, “Periods don’t stop for pandemics and the work to improve access to essential tampons, pads and reusables has never been more important.”
Non-profit organizations are tackling the issue of inadequate sanitation facilities have been working towards providing developing countries with basic sanitation facilities for decades. Organizations like WaterAid, Water for People, UNICEF, and Rural Water Supply Network are just a few of the thousands of organizations that have provided resources and facilities to developing communities. UNICEF acknowledges that major contributor to period poverty is a lack of facilities for women and girls to manage their periods safely. Programs like The UNICEF Tap Project took donations and turned it into water for over a half of a million people in the UNICEF water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs. With donations totaling over $6 million dollars, the UNICEF Tap Project directly benefited people in Côte d’Ivoire, Nicaragua, Iraq, Central African Republic, Togo, Haiti, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cameroon, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Tanzania.
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE
As many countries and non-profit organizations battle to eliminate period poverty on all fronts, people are realizing that they too must stand up and join the fight. Changemakers from far and wide are continuing to come up with new and innovative ways to help women like Rachel. Women like Rachel herself, Rupi Kaur, Kiran Gandhi, and Sophia Grinvalds are reaching new heights and taking a stand against the injustices that millions of women experience every day.
After overcoming the hardships that she had to endure, Rachel Krengel began to speak out about her experiences and worked to help other. Krengel and other members of the London-based group Fourth Wave has called on former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, to introduce free menstrual products in all UK schools. The petition that the group started gathered thousands of signatures and made lawmakers rethink the way they look at period poverty. Having overcome period poverty herself, Rachel is now a campaigner with a focus on social justice and equality issues. She has campaigned on issues including austerity, reproductive justice, renter’s rights, and menstrual equity and hopes to continue empowering and supporting others.
As a 21-year-old university student, Rupi Kaur wrote, illustrated, and self- published her first poetry collection: milk and honey. Her poetry collections exploded in popularity. milk and honey and its equally poetic sister the sun and her flowers have since sold over 8 million copies and have been translated into over 42 languages. Kaur’s work touches on topics like love, loss, trauma, healing, and femininity. Before she was a well-known author, she was a period activist after she posted a photo- series on her Instagram account to de-stigmatize the period taboo in 2015. Kaur’s pictures showed herself lying on a bed with a period stain on her butt. The post was swiftly removed by Instagram twice, but the company later apologized and restored the pictures after seeing the storm the post had caused on Facebook.
Kiran Gandhi, or better known as the drummer who toured with M.I.A and Kehlani, enjoys running marathon in her free time. In 2015, she was about to take part in the London Marathon when she started her period. Wearing a pad while running can cause chafing and using a tampon was not an option for her. Gandhi decided to bleed freely during the marathon to make a statement: women should not be forced to be uncomfortable for the comfort of others. Gandhi stated that it would be “absurd and oppressive that I should compromise my wellbeing, just so that other people didn’t feel grossed out”. Ultimately, she wanted to raise awareness for those who experience period poverty and have to hide their periods. Gandhi took a stand to erase the stigma experienced by those who feel ashamed of talking about their periods to the point where they pretend as if it doesn’t exist.
Another period activist is Sophia Grinvalds, the Co-Founder and Director at AFRIpads. As mentioned before, women in many developing countries experience period poverty. AFRIpads is the world’s leading social enterprise manufacturing reusable sanitary pads. The company was founded on the belief that if society can overcome menstrual barriers, women would be one step closer to gender equality. Sophia and Paul Grinvalds established AFRIpads in Uganda while they were living in a remote village and saw the lack of accessible menstrual products firsthand. By starting this company, the couple gave women access to a product that is a cost-effective and eco- friendly solution for menstrual hygiene management. AFRIpads’ mission is to empower women and girls through business, innovation, and opportunity by proving jobs and promoting education within the communities they support.
Sophia Grinvalds wants to end the stigma too. After living in Uganda, she noticed that in one part of the country, there’s a belief that if a woman or a girl on her period walks through a garden with growing vegetables, that everything in that garden will die. Claims such as this one are purely based on superstition. Most superstitions are considered harmless while others are potentially dangerous; there is a myth that anyone who experiences cramping or discomfort during their period should have sex to take the pain away. Grinvalds describes this fallacy as a “particularly sad misconception” and said that as a result of the myth being popular among community members, “young girls, adolescent girls, are then engaging in sex far earlier than they would have, because they think it’s a way of actually addressing the pain that they feel.” Grinvalds’ work to end the stigma has begun to pay off. The company now supports women in across Africa, Asia, and is expanding into Europe with each product being made by women, for women – with love.
Written by Macayla Temple