Period Poverty: What is it? What are the effects? What is the solution?
For the 23 years Nancy was homeless, she couldn’t afford menstrual products. Taking cover behind dumpsters and trees, she would change out her makeshift products hoping no one would see her. She improvised with rags and sometimes used discarded, dirty clothing on the street instead of tampons or pads. For Nancy, buying clean and safe period products simply did not take priority. She needed to focus on transporting her belongings, finding a safe and warm place to sleep, figuring out her next meal. Nancy, now no longer homeless, was only one of the hundreds of thousands of victims of period poverty in the United States.
What is Period Poverty?
Period poverty is the lack of access to safe, hygienic period products and/or sanitary systems, leaving menstruators around the world unable to manage their cycles with dignity. Due to poor menstrual education and a long history of cultural stigma, period poverty is often overlooked within the cyclical struggles of poverty. While resources like shelter, food, and water remain a focal point in poverty, many fail to consider the sanitation and basic hygiene needs of individuals. Period poverty is a denial of human rights.
According to Global Citizen, more than 800 million people menstruate every day worldwide, and when discussing period poverty, it is important to remember that not all menstruators identify as women, and not all women menstruate. Jumping beyond this gender-based barrier helps us collectively address the issue of period poverty and provide care to all menstruators.
While many aspects of normal poverty factor into period poverty, it is not solely a homeless issue. Many are affected by period poverty like low-income, students, transgender and non-binary, incarcerated, refugees, etc. Period poverty does not discriminate; it can impact anyone financially, culturally, or circumstantially.
Low-income, at-risk, and homeless menstruators are a demographic very likely to be impacted by period poverty. Being homeless while menstruating is a life of choices, as Nancy explained, and usually, the necessity to pay for food is prioritized over the choice to buy period products. This decision then prompts homeless menstruators to use discarded fabric or paper, typically not clean nor safe, as tampons and pads, leaving them at high risk of infection and illness.
For many cultures and societies around the globe, menstruation is a taboo topic; one where periods go undiscussed and can be used as an oppressive tool to ostracize menstruators. In Western Nepal, some communities practice Chhaupadi, a superstitious tradition which "prohibits Hindu [mentruators] from participating in normal family activities while menstruating, as they are considered impure." During their cycle, menstruators are usually banned from using community resources, like water and bathing, and are confined to a strict vegetarian and dairy-free diet, for fear their impurity will cause cows to become ill. Menstruators are also confined to living in 'menstrual huts,' which often have poor living conditions. Recently in 2019, a mother and her two sons died of smoke inhalation while attempting to start a fire in a menstrual hut to keep warm. In response, local authorities destroyed the huts ending the controversial practice. Although Chhaupadi was outlawed in Nepal in 2005, the tradition is clearly still alive. In tragic scenarios like this, basic menstrual education can go a long way in normalizing periods and providing menstruators with dignity and the resources to carry out their lives unashamedly.
Period poverty is also common in instances of military occupation, incarceration, refugee camps, and other similar confinements. In the United States, period poverty is especially prominent in jails where menstruators have been denied proper sanitation and hygiene products required to live a healthy, safe life. Chandra Bozelko, a woman formerly incarcerated from York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, shared in her blog about how prisons provided inadequate period supplies and how “when a [menstruator] wears the same pad for several days because she can’t find a fresh one, that pad often fails to stick to her underwear and the pad falls out.” She continues on, “It’s disgusting but it’s true.”
These horrible circumstances were attempted to be reconciled with the First Step Act. In 2018, the First Step Act was passed with a focus on improving federal prisons and providing menstruating federal inmates with period products. While this seems like a big step forward for eradicating period poverty, it is deceiving. The Act only requires that period products be provided, saying nothing on how, when, or who will provide them. Legislation to specify this terminology is still in progress.
What Are the Effects of Period Poverty?
One of the main issues stemming from period poverty is that it causes menstruators to miss out on important societal opportunities. Menstruators can be ostracized from society and skip school due to their cycles. Those who miss school are more likely to experience:
Missing school due to a period perpetuates the poverty cycle and in some cultures brings ‘dishonor,’ further cementing period taboos and creating more missed opportunities. TIME Magazine reported, “[In India] when a girl misses school because of her period, cumulatively that puts her behind her male classmates by 145 days. And that’s the mitigated setback if she opts to stay in school, which most do not.”
Suffering from this disparity in education and the stigma towards periods, many menstruators would rather drop out of school than face the shame experienced when pursuing an education while menstruating. Without an education, menstruators cannot obtain a job to support their own livelihood, or their family’s. Stuck in a helpless position, menstruators are less likely to pursue higher educational opportunities or careers, and instead, settle for lower-level jobs and low quality of life. Stuck in this cycle, the intersectional aspects of poverty drag them in.
“One hundred and thirteen million adolescent girls between the ages of 12-14 in India alone are at risk of dropping out of school because of the stigma surrounding menstrual health” - TIME Magazine, 2017
Menstruators in period poverty can experience mental stress and anxiety when a period arrives. Perhaps it’s the student who unknowingly starts during class and has to endure the ridicule from their classmates when they see the stained blood on their pants. Or it’s the parent with only enough money for food and rent, and can’t afford basic hygiene necessities for themselves or their children.
When homeless menstruators like Nancy choose food over hygiene products and turn to rags or discarded newspapers, or use (makeshift) tampons much longer than its intended timeframe, they are placed at an even greater risk for infections like Toxic Shock Syndrome.
How is Period Poverty Being Addressed?
With so many factors and issues, how can we end period poverty? As we work to bring about menstrual equity, we must always elevate and listen to menstruators’ voices in all spaces of everyday life.
Destigmatizing periods is a great first step. Communities can take time to consider where a taboo originates and address the false narratives perpetuating that taboo. Period stigma can originate from tradition, religion, culture, gender roles, and more. It often revolves around the idea of being “unclean” or “cursed” while on a period. Education on what menstruation is and how one's situation can impact it can be very valuable, and be the defining factor in understanding some of the stigma surrounding menstruation. Days for Girls works to increase menstrual care and education to create a world with opportunities for all by distributing reusable period products and leading health education programs.
Sanitation, healthcare services, and accessible, affordable period products are all key elements to reducing period poverty. There are many organizations that empower menstruators to rise above and leave the cyclical traumas of period poverty. Water 1st works to provide clean and safe water and sanitary systems to developing countries and areas, focusing on South and Southeast Asia. Organizations like Friendship NGO and Doctors Without Borders work to supply healthcare to developing countries where healthcare is limited and inaccessible for many.
Locally, we at The Red SEA work to provide products to those experiencing period poverty, while advocating for policy changes on the federal, state, and local levels. Recently, we held a back-to-school drive where The Red SEA collected and provided 8,000 pads and tampons to students at Rainier Beach High School in South Seattle. The school nurse at Rainier Beach explained that for the students who don’t have period products at home, their only access was through the school.
It is so critically important for all institutions to provide easy access to period products and community care. Providing these products acknowledges the struggles that menstruators go through, and as Hannah Neumeyer, Head of Human Rights at WASH United, an organization working to end the global sanitation and hygiene crisis, said, “It’s simple, women and girls have human rights, and they have periods. One should not defeat the other.”
I am a senior Seattle Prep high school and have been involved with The Red SEA since the very beginning because I believe that eradicating period poverty will help educate and support menstruators worldwide, creating a new generation of womxn leaders. I hope to study International Relations in college, with a focus on International Security!