What is period poverty?


Period poverty is a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or a combination of these. It affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide.

The above information is from a study that BMC Women’s Health published in 2021.

People who experience period poverty are unable to purchase the menstrual products they need, and, in many cases, this means that they cannot go to school or work or otherwise participate in daily life.

Period poverty causes physical, mental, and emotional challenges. It can make people feel shame for menstruating, and the stigma surrounding periods prevents individuals from talking about it.

Read more to learn about what period poverty is, how it affects people, how to break the stigma around menstruation, and more.

Below, we list some period poverty statistics:

  • Globally, an estimated 500 million people who menstruate lack access to menstrual products and hygiene facilities.
  • There are an estimated 16.9 million people who menstruate living in poverty in the United States.
  • A study involving college-aged individuals who menstruate reported that 14.2% had experienced period poverty in the past year. An additional 10.0% experienced it every month.
  • Research found that almost two-thirds of women in the U.S. with a low income could not afford menstrual products in the last year, while nearly half sometimes had to choose between buying food or menstrual products.
  • As of June 2019, 35 states in the U.S. taxed menstrual products at rates between 4.7%, in Hawaii, and 9.9%, in Louisiana.

Period poverty refers to the social, economic, political, and cultural barriers to menstrual products, education, and sanitation.

Although period poverty is a widespread problem, there is a lack of research on the topic. In 2019, experts from academic institutions, NGOs, governments, UN organizations, and elsewhere came together to form the Global Menstrual Collective to solve this issue.

The Global Menstrual Collective defines menstrual health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle.” It notes that people should have:

  • access to information about menstruation, life changes, and hygiene practices
  • the ability to care for themselves during menstruation
  • access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services
  • the ability to receive a diagnosis for menstrual cycle disorders and access to healthcare
  • a positive, supportive environment in which to make informed decisions
  • the ability to participate in all aspects of life, such as going to work and school

Period poverty can affect people in a variety of ways. It can make them feel embarrassed about or ashamed of their periods, and it causes young people to miss out on school due to a lack of menstrual products.

Mental health and well-being

Being unable to manage their period with the appropriate menstrual products can make people feel upset, distressed, and uncomfortable. Research has found that a lack of access to these products can negatively affect someone’s mental health.

For instance, a study of college-attending women found that 68.1% of participants who experienced period poverty had symptoms of moderate-to-severe depression. They also had higher rates of depression than the participants who did not experience period poverty.

However, it is important to note that in populations with high income inequality, having a low income is associated with higher rates of depression. Many people living in period poverty also fall into this group. Therefore, although people who cannot access menstrual products may have higher rates of depression, it is not possible to conclude that period poverty directly causes the depression.

Health and hygiene

People unable to access menstrual products have reported using rags, toilet paper, and children’s diapers. Some people have also used the menstrual products they did have for longer than intended.

Using these alternative products puts individuals at higher risk of urogenital infections, which are infections of the urinary and genital systems. These infections include urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis.

Using products longer than intended can also be dangerous. Leaving a tampon in for too long can increase a person’s risk of toxic shock syndrome, a rare but dangerous infection.

Work

Period poverty can prevent people from participating in the workforce, which can have significant economic implications for them and their families.

A study in Bangladesh showed that 73% of women missed work for an average of 6 days a month. However, when the HERproject delivered sanitary pads and implemented a behavior change work-based intervention, absenteeism dropped.

Education

People who menstruate can have a negative experience of school or college if they are uncomfortable, distracted, or unable to participate due to menstrual leakage and odor.

This experience can have long-term consequences. Poor school attendance affects a person’s future earning potential, self-esteem, health outcomes, and sense of control.

The issue of period poverty is shrouded in stigma. Although period poverty is a global public health crisis, the shame surrounding menstruation means that it goes largely unaddressed.

Many cultures see menstruation as dirty and something that people should hide. Campaigners want to shift the focus to the fact that menstruating is biologically normal and healthy.

The shame associated with periods prevents people from talking about them. This leads to a lack of dialogue regarding access to menstruation products, the tax on these products, and even the ingredients that they include.

There is also stigma around the experience of menstruating as a trans person.

Many sources still describe menstruation as being a woman-only experience, but this is not true. Many people who are not women menstruate, and not all women menstruate. Being conscious of using the right language to discuss period poverty is crucial in recognizing all people who menstruate.

This belief that only women get periods means that trans people often experience additional challenges. For instance, they may find that only insertion-based products are available in public restrooms, there are no disposal receptacles in bathroom stalls, and there is a lack of access to free menstrual products through school.

It is important to talk openly — and inclusively — about period poverty to improve menstruation experiences for everyone.

People who live in low income countries, particularly in parts of the Global South, may experience greater period poverty.

Older research from 2008 showed that in southeast Asia, many workplaces had inadequate workplace environments for menstruation hygiene. Among workplaces in Cambodia, for instance, a quarter did not have toilets.

This lack of facilities in workplaces led to an estimated 13.8 million and 1.5 million workday absences in the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively.

Many African countries — including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria — have a lack of access to safe, clean, private spaces for menstrual hygiene, according to a 2019 report.

Access to sanitary pads varies among countries. Due to lack of access, the following percentage of menstruators in each country do not use sanitary pads:

  • Kinshasa: 17%
  • Kenya: 14%
  • Ghana: 10%
  • Ethiopia: 41%
  • Nigeria: 37%
  • Uganda: 36%

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) surveyed menstruators in Kenya. Those who did not have access to menstrual products relied on pieces of blanket, chicken feathers, old rags, newspapers, and mud.

Period poverty is a global public health crisis requiring serious attention. Some ways in which people can combat period poverty include:

  • National advocacy: Menstruators need the support of their governments to provide adequate infrastructure and access to affordable menstrual products.
  • Increased education and knowledge sharing: Knowledge sharing between organizations, in communities, and in schools can include menstruators in the conversation and provide education without stigma.
  • The private sector: Businesses can provide information and access to facilities and products, contribute to destigmatizing menstruation, and integrate menstruation management into their policies.
  • Evidence-informed charitable programs: Programs can educate menstruators, provide necessary products, and support people and their communities.
  • Further research: More research is necessary on the effects of period poverty and how to combat it.
  • Legislation: Protective legislation can ensure affordable access to proper facilities and menstrual hygiene products. Governments can also reduce taxes on menstrual products, making them more affordable.

Period poverty refers to a lack of access to menstrual products, sanitation facilities, and adequate education. This widespread issue affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide.

Those experiencing period poverty may have mental health challenges and physical health risks. They may also miss school or work and have low self-esteem. The stigma surrounding periods prevents people from openly discussing the issue, and the stigma is even greater for trans individuals who menstruate.

People can contribute to ending period poverty through national advocacy, charitable programs, legislative changes, improved education and access, and further research.



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