What is period poverty and why we must end it

A lack of access to menstruation products, being unable to afford pain relievers for menstrual cramps alongside stigmas and taboos surrounding menstruation cause many young girls to skip school whenever experiencing menstruation. Photos: 123rf.com

About one in four women and girls between the ages of 13 and 35 are finding it harder to manage their periods since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a survey by non-government organisation WASH United, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (Waggs) and Unicef.

The survey also found that 47% of people who menstruate have found it more difficult to access menstrual supplies since the pandemic.

Most of those affected come from under-privileged and disadvantaged households and communities.

In Malaysia, an average pack of 16 sanitary pads costs RM10 and a pack of 16 tampons costs RM28.

Although menstruation is a natural biological function for most girls once they reach puberty, period products such as pads and tampons are often not regarded as a basic necessity.

What this means is that for a family whose income has been hit by the pandemic, the main priority is finding money to put food on the table, first and foremost.

Next comes utilities and other essential household necessities of which pads aren’t a part of.

For menstruating girls, going without sanitary pads means not being able to go to school or go out of the house, even. It reinforces the stigma and shame that surrounds menstruation.

In many cultures, women and girls who are menstruating are still not allowed to participate in many activities. In some countries, menstruating girls are kept indoors and aren’t even allowed in their homes for fear that they may contaminate the food.

For women, this means not being able to go out to work or go about their day in comfort.

It isn’t a problem that has come about because of the pandemic but the crisis has certainly exacerbated the problem.

“While there is no data specifically on period poverty, the National Population and Family Development Board of Malaysia says that theB40 households significantly struggle with this issue.

“The lack of data shows how this issue of period poverty is often side-lined in Malaysia.

“This is dangerous as we are not properly capturing the negative effects of period poverty which jeopardises the health and lives of girls and women who are facing this, ” says Gaayathrey Balakrishnan, capacity building officer of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

Cases of period poverty, she says, have indeed worsened due to the pandemic.

Girls and women who were not able to access menstrual products before the pandemic are finding it even harder e to do so now, especially girls and women from marginalised communities.

“Sociologist Syarifah Fatimah Al Zahral Al Attas from the International Islamic University reported that before the pandemic, studies show no immediate increase by the public for hygiene kits in the urban poor area such as low-costing flats (PPR).

“However, after the implementation of the movement control orders, many girls and women were asking for sanitary products, ” explains Gaayathrey.

Due to inaccessibility to proper menstrual products, these girls and women resort to using tattered clothes, coconut husks, newspapers and even banana leaves in place of sanitary pads or tampons.

“There have been cases where girls wash their menstrual products in the ocean as well as rivers.

“These unhygienic products and dangerous methods can cause severe health issues such as urinary tract infections as well as other health risks.

“A lack of access to menstruation products, being unable to afford pain relievers for menstrual cramps alongside stigmas and taboos surrounding menstruation cause many young girls to skip school whenever experiencing menstruation.

“In some cases, they completely drop out of school. This will also affect their long term well-being as their socio-economic status will be negatively affected in their adult lives, as a lack of education may hinder them from pursuing careers or finding a job.

“Due to the various stigmas and taboos surrounding menstruation, most girls are often excluded from activities and interaction when they are menstruating. When girls and women are not allowed to take part in any activities and are further shamed due to these stigma and taboos, there is a loss of agency within them. This further leads to reduced self-esteem which often leads to depression and anxiety, ” adds GaayathreyWith families struggling to put food on the table, period products aren't seen as a necessity even though they further marginalise women and girls. With families struggling to put food on the table, period products aren't seen as a necessity even though they further marginalise women and girls.

No pad, no school

All around the world, millions of girls dropout of school each year because of period poverty, which is when girls and women lack access to sanitary products and turn to unsafe alternatives like toilet paper, rags, and newspaper to manage them.

In Malaysia, the pandemic has increased financial hardship, especially for daily wage earners.

As B40 communities get hit hardest by Covid-19 with job losses and cuts, the ability to purchase menstrual products every month is not possible for many people.

Last year, NGO The Lost Food Project (TLFP), distributed over 60,000 period packs to families in need.

That, says TLFP’s corporate engagement and procurement manager Dianne Too, is barely scratching the surface of the problem of period poverty.

“From March last year, we were getting a lot of requests from B40 families for menstrual products.

“But we were still not reaching the B40 families who are the ones who really need our help.

“For these families, who are trying to put food on the table every day, menstrual products are really not a priority. We really need to tackle this problem because there is a direct correlation between period poverty and education, ” says Too.

And so, TLFP is collaborating with P&G Malaysia to run the #LetItFlow campaign with the aim of ending period poverty for underprivileged girls and women in Malaysia.

The campaign hopes to fight the stigma and shame that still exists around menstruation as well as to provide feminine hygiene products to girls and women from 56 charities and B40 families across the country.

“To be honest there is no data on exactly how many are affected by period poverty but our team has been on the ground and so they know the situation and have been approached for these products, ” says Too.

TLFP is a food bank in Malaysia that rescues quality, nutritious surplus food that would otherwise end up in landfill, and redistributes this food to those who need it.

“Many families are struggling during MCO with no income after losing their jobs.

“If people barely have enough to make ends meet, it means they don’t have the means to buy menstrual products. Menstrual products are just as essential as our everyday toiletries and it’s certainly not a luxury.

“But many of us don’t see it this way. Which is why we launched this campaign to empower girls and women to #LetItFlow and raise awareness on period poverty as well as dismantle the stigmas surrounding menstruation, ” said General Manager of TLFP, Mohd Syazwan Mokhtar.

Until April 8, every like of any of P&G Whisper Malaysia and TLFP official posts on period poverty and related issues on any of their social media platforms will be matched with one Whisper sanitary pad to support women and girls facing period poverty.

More than 2,600 packets of Whisper sanitary pads, equivalent to 179,000 pads are expected to be donated through this campaign.

On top of that, for each Whisper pack sold by Watsons from April 20 till May 24, P&G will donate a pack of Whisper sanitary product to support underprivileged girls and women.

More attention, please

Period poverty has caused girls to skip school, sports and other developmental experiences to avoid the shame surrounding it, which can limit girls’ confidence and potential far beyond puberty.

“We hope that there will be more attention given to this issue and hopefully, our government can follow the lead of countries like Scotland and New Zealand who have passed laws mandating free menstrual products for all who need them, ” says Too.

Last year, Scotland became the first country in the world to offer period products free for women and girls who needed them.

The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill makes it a legal duty for local authorities to ensure that free items like tampons and sanitary pads are available and distributed to those in need.

Gaayathrey agrees and suggests that the next step should be encouraging women and girls from marginalised communities to make, use and sell hygienic handmade menstrual products.

“Not only does this ensure that girls and women in the communities can access menstrual products, but it also ensures that these women are able to earn a living which positively affects their economic status in their communities as well, ” she says.

But much more needs to be done, she notes.

“To improve the state of period poverty in Malaysia, we must first identify the root issues causing the problem. The government needs to conduct multiple and specific studies on period poverty. With significant data and information, the government can then further work on identifying and implementing solutions to end period poverty for girls and women in Malaysia.

“The Education Ministry must include comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education into the school curriculum. Through this, girls will be educated from a young age on menstrual processes and how to maintain menstrual hygiene.

“Teaching both boys and girls about menstruation will also help in reducing stigmas and taboos that are related to menstruation, ” she concludes.

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girls , women , menstruation , poverty , stigma


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