Event Report: Period rediscovered. #6 Period Poverty: the public health crisis we don't know about
For the grande finale of the Period rediscovered. series, we invited panelists with diverse backgrounds to shed light on the topic of period poverty from different angles: what does it mean in the context of tribal communities in India, homeless women, refugee camps, and Japan. Ayanda Mhlongo is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and has researched period poverty among homeless women in Cape Town and refugee women in the UK. Urara Takeseki, is a research student at the university of Tokyo and founded Omotete, Inc. as CEO in 2021 and launched unfre., a service “made by and for the champions of menstruators” that provides free menstrual products in public bathrooms. Tanya Khera is co-founder at Samanta Foundation which works with forest-dwelling communities in the Himalayas, where she leads their education, health and gender related projects.
Period poverty is a public health crisis that is given very little attention - what does it even mean? Mhlongo explained that period poverty arises in the absence of quality Menstrual Hygiene/Health Management (MHM). MHM entails the elements necessary for a menstruator to effectively manage menstruation. Menstruator is an inclusive term referring to anyone who menstruates, including transgender men and non-binary people. MHM encompasses the accessibility, availability and affordability of the following:
Clean absorbents such as disposable and reusable pads, tampons, menstrual cups, menstrual sponges, menstrual disc, and period underwear. Reusable products require being cleaned, dried and stored.
Soap and water to wash the body and period products
Adequate waste management facilities to dispose off period products
Privacy and a safe space to use menstrual products and clean the body, such as toilets
Menstrual management education to allow for a dignified period experience, and overcome taboos and discrimination
Our panelists revealed what period poverty looks like in their context of work. Khera works in forest communities in tribal and rural areas of India. Women are taught to put their families first and themselves last, meaning menstrual products are usually prioritized not in the family budget. Period poverty is not however limited to financial barriers; taboos and and workplace discrimination create more difficulties, and can even be experienced at home. Old rags are used as absorbents for menstruation, and education about how to manage it is lacking.
Takeseki talked about the situation in Japan; an overwhelming majority of menstruators use single-use menstrual pads, and the comparatively high price of other products such as tampons limits choice. Local governments do provide free menstrual pads in their city hall, but this act of acquiring pads in such a public place is often humiliating for many, and it is inconvenient to miss out on work and visit the city hall. Additionally, there is even denial about whether there is anyone poor enough in Japan to suffer from period poverty, making it difficult to solve the problem. Even though period leave is legal in Japan, menstruators find it difficult to access it. For example, even female superiors may dismiss the need for period leave, because they may have a different (easier) period experience. So a lack of understanding between menstruators of the varied period experiences can perpetuate the problem of menstrual inequity.
Ayanda spoke of several contexts she is familiar with; refugee women in the UK, and homeless women in Cape Town, South Africa. While many see the UK as a developed country with no period poverty, many have found that being a refugee woman in a high-income country is not that dissimilar to being homeless in a less developed one. These women faced language and cultural barriers to asking for products they needed and suffered from lack of dignity in managing their period. In Cape Town, homeless women resorted to staying with abusive partners or engaging in trasctional sex to afford managing their period. When they could not access products, they used material such as chicken feathers or mud.
Period poverty has a huge effect on confidence, mental health, and self-worth and is affected by culture. In many parts of the world, menstruation is seen as a women’s issue only, and many people feel that they have to hide menstruation. The needs of menstruators are not given priority, and are cut out of household budgets. This leads to isolation and shame over menstruation, affecting the mental health of menstruators. This can express itself in people being anxious and afraid of buying menstrual products in fear of who might see them, fear of going out while menstruating, and ‘hiding away’ during a period.
Surely giving out free period products to menstruators would solve the problem right? Khera explained how simply handing out period products to menstruators encourages dependency on the organization providing the products - so we need to create agency. For example, educating about female anatomy empowers them to identify and speak up against misinformation. It’s alright if they use cloth to manage their period, as long as they understand which materials are best suited and how to maintain hygiene. Mhlongo explained how women that were assisted by NGOs, she studied, later returned to work and helped other women in the NGO. NGOs also need support from academia, civil society, and government. Continuous training about period poverty, menstrual equity and justice and how we can go about tackling it, and how to overcome taboo and stigma in different contexts needs to be researched and communicated with those in the field. So having a multi-disciplinary and intersectional approach, that centers the voices of the menstruators, is necessary to tackle period poverty. Being at the intersection of research and practice is crucial. Non-menstruators, should they have consent, could stand in solidarity with and amplify the voices of menstruators.
There has been much progress - at least we are talking and writing about it now! Following are a few places to start taking action:
For accessing Ayanda’s papers on period poverty in refugee women in the UK and homeless women in Cape Town, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Japan Times article about period poverty in Japan
Change.org petition to ask for tax reductions on menstrual products
NPO MinnaNoSeiri working to end period poverty in Japan
Introduction to menstruation for trans men, nonbinary, and genderqueer people