Menstruation And Human Rights: Period Poverty

“Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity, and public health,” Sanjay Wijesekera, former UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene said. 

Menstruation is a physiological aspect of womanhood that should be celebrated, remains shrouded in shame and ignorance impacting the health, education, and dignity of women and girls, in many parts of Africa and the world. Access to sanitary products, safe and hygienic spaces in which to use them, and the right to manage menstruation without shame is essential for anyone who menstruates but the cultural shame attached to menstruation and the shortage of resources stop women from going to school and working every day. The non-governmental agency WoMena conducted a study in Uganda and found many girls skipping school while on their period to avoid teasing by classmates. Added to that, according to a 2014 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report, one out of every 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during her menstrual cycle due to period poverty which is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and, or, waste management.

Here is everything you need to know about this serious human rights concern.

Why is it a problem?

Period poverty describes the struggle many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products, they survive their periods with socks, tissue, rags, etc. The term also refers to the increased economic pressure women and girls face due to the financial burden posed by menstrual expenses. These include not only sanitary napkins and tampons but also related costs such as pain medication and underwear. Because they are unable to buy these sanitary products, girls stay home from school and work, with lasting consequences on their education and economic opportunities. Studies in Kenya, for example, have shown that some schoolgirls have engaged in transactional sex to pay for menstrual products.

Period poverty is not only an economic issue but a social and political one as well. For instance, some advocates have called for menstruation products to be tax-exempt. Such efforts in India have resulted in the elimination of taxes on sanitary pads and tampons. Poor menstrual hygiene promotes physical health risks and has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections, according to UNICEF. It also stops women from reaching their full potential as they miss out on opportunities crucial to their growth. Young girls who do not receive an education are more likely to engage in child marriages and experience early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications as a result.

Who it affects?

Period poverty affects populations in the developing world, and women living in poverty are especially vulnerable. Nevertheless, Period poverty also affects women in wealthy, industrialized countries.

According to UNICEF, 2.3 billion people live without basic sanitation services and in developing countries, only 27 percent of people have adequate handwashing facilities at home which makes the lack of sanitary facilities a global issue, not only restricted to women. Not being able to use these facilities makes it harder for women and young girls to manage their periods safely and with dignity. Period poverty is an overwhelming concept in sub-Saharan Africa. They either do not have access to menstrual products and WASH (water, sanitation, and good hygiene) facilities, or in the rare scenarios where they do, they do not have any way of disposing of menstrual waste.

Girls and women with special needs and disabilities do not have access to the facilities and resources they need for proper menstrual hygiene. Also, living in conflict-affected areas, or in the aftermath of natural disasters, makes it more difficult for women and girls to manage their periods.

Menstrual hygiene education benefits boys and men greatly: as educating girls and boys on menstruation at an early age at home and school promotes healthy habits and breaks stigmas around the natural process. Achieving menstrual equity means access to sanitary products, proper toilets, hand washing facilities, sanitation and hygiene education, and waste management for people around the world.

The Pink Tax

Many girls and women also cannot afford menstrual materials. The tampon tax, known as the “pink tax”, is named for the frequent marketing of pink toward women. Although some countries around the world have lifted the tax on period products as luxury items, others continue to use it as a form of gender-based discrimination. Ending the tax worldwide will not single-handedly make period products affordable, too many people cannot pay for them at all and are often torn between purchasing food or menstrual supplies.

Poor menstrual hygiene can cause physical health risks and has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections, according to UNICEF. It also stops women from reaching their full potential when they miss out on opportunities crucial to their growth.

Nigeria is one of the countries that place a heavy tax on menstrual products. A pack of sanitary pads costs an average of $1.30, even as an estimated 44 percent of Nigeria’s population (87 Million people) lives in extreme poverty earning less than $1.90 per day. Likewise, in Cameroon, women and girls may delay urination and defecation but it is not possible to stop menstrual flow. The lack of affordable sanitary products also exacerbates anxiety and stress during menstruation and increases their vulnerability. As mentioned in a research by UNICEF in 2018, in Kenya, it has been reported that girls are forced to have sex in exchange for sanitary products.

In Ghana, there is currently a 20 percent import tax on menstruation materials because the country considers them a “luxury” item. This creates a price increase that makes it difficult for families in low-income households to afford these items.

Period Poverty is not far-fetched from West Africa to East Africa, and other regions of the continent more than 800 million women and girls menstruate worldwide each day yet 500 million of those women have no access to sanitary pads. 3.4 percent of women in African prisons are forced to go through their monthly periods without sanitary wears. Women and girls with special needs and disabilities disproportionately do not have access to affordable pads, likewise, those in conflict-affected areas. The lack of affordable sanitary products has a resultant effect on women’s and girls’ health, economic, power dynamics in a relationship, and the height of it all leads to an increase in gender inequality.

Period poverty during the coronavirus pandemic

As Covid-19 spreads to Africa, South East Asia, and Latin America, the world’s most vulnerable people are facing a catastrophe of immense proportions. ActionAid is on the frontline of the crisis helping to stop the spread and save lives, including by distributing hygiene kits to women and girls, so they can safely manage their health.

Access to menstrual products is a right, and feeling clean, confident, and capable during one’s period is a necessity. We can all work toward menstrual equity, and the opportunities are boundless.

How can we stop it?

The first step is to normalize menstruation and destroy taboos around the natural process. Then policies must be enforced to make menstrual products, sanitation, and hygiene easily accessible.

As more than 800 million women menstruate daily, the world must act to end period poverty and guarantee clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. Promoting menstrual equity is key to supporting women and young girls. Organizations like MINA Foundation are not waiting on the government to act, they provide young women with menstrual products to help them stay in school.

On a global level, the WSSCC is working to improve sanitation and hygiene for the most vulnerable populations. The organization aims to break the menstruation stigma and change national policies through education and behavior change with initiatives like hosting menstrual waste workshops in West and Central Africa and promoting toilet designs that can handle menstrual material waste in India. “It’s simple,” head of human rights at WASH United, Hannah Neumeyer explained, “women and girls have human rights, and they have periods. One should not defeat the other.”

Here are two organisations run by young women that seek to end period poverty in South Africa, The Siyasizana Foundation and The Cora Project.

You can donate here to help fight period poverty: 


About the author:

Yosser Tarchi, born and raised in Tunisia, is a young woman who aspires to be a human rights advocate. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Language, Literature, and Civilization and a master’s degree in International relations. A former member of GirlUp Tunisia, her interest in gender studies expanded which is why she’s currently volunteering for Politics4Her. Her motto? GRL PWR!

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