Around the globe, attitudes about menstruation vary greatly. In some places, people who menstruate are ostracized from basic activities or socializing.
Period poverty — a lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand-washing facilities, and waste management — keeps people who menstruate from going to work, school, or leaving home.
In other places, period poverty keeps low-income communities and people experiencing homelessness from getting access to the necessary sanitary supplies they need.
The Problem: What Does Period Poverty Mean?
It’s a health issue.
Period poverty is a global sanitation issue, as poor menstrual hygiene can cause physical health risks.
A person who does not have enough product to last the duration of their period might go longer between changing them, increasing the risk for health problems such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), bacterial vaginosis, and skin irritation.
It’s a mental health issue.
Not only does period poverty affect physical health, but period shame has negative mental effects, causing people who menstruate to feel embarrassed about a normal biological process.
Additionally, a new study published in the scholarly journal BMC Women’s Health in January revealed that lack of access to necessary sanitary products is linked to depression.
It’s an education issue.
Girls all over the world miss up to 20 percent of school days because of their period. UNICEF estimated in 2015 that roughly one in 10 girls in Africa miss school because of their periods each year.
Long-term consequences of a community or society where women don’t fully participate in school include lower graduation rates and a higher likelihood of early marriage.
According to UNICEF, investing in girls’ education makes good sense in several ways: “More educated girls lead to an increase in female leaders, lower levels of population growth, and the subsequent reduction of pressures related to climate change,” UNICEF global chief of education Jo Bourne told the Global Partnership for Education.
It’s a social justice issue.
Additional barriers to accessing affordable period products exist for people living in shelters, low-income communities, people living in developing nations or conflict-affected areas, LGBTQ+ people with uteruses, and those facing housing insecurity. And it was only 2018 when U.S. federal prisons made menstrual products free.
The cost of period products can be prohibitive for some people, who are forced to choose between period products or food.
Forcing women to choose between their menstrual hygiene and other necessities is a public health crisis that affects each community uniquely, but the brunt of the weight falls on the shoulders of marginalized communities.
Period products aren’t covered by government assistance programs like SNAP (food stamps).
It’s a political issue.
In places where sanitary products like pads and tampons are sold widely, such as the United States, they’re taxed as “luxury products,” unlike basic necessities including toilet paper.
Tampons alone can cost upwards of $2,000 over a lifetime — and this doesn’t even touch the costs of replacement underwear, heating pads, panty liners, Midol, and birth control, which are all associated with managing one’s period.
Activists have spoken out against this “tampon tax,” and there exists a growing movement to ensure access to the basic necessity of menstrual products for all people
“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 in a statement.
The Solution: What's Being Done About Period Poverty
This movement for menstrual equity has grown in recent years and aims to make sanitary products affordable and accessible and reduce the stigma surrounding menstruation.
Organizations, activists, and governments are increasingly taking action to solve this problem:
In the U.S., there have been increasing efforts to put an end to the “tampon tax,” but most policy changes are at the state or city level. In 2016, New York City passed a law mandating schools, homeless shelters, and jails provide period products, deeming them as essential as toilet paper. The law benefits hundreds of thousands of people.
As of February 2021, 20 U.S. states have lowered or put an end to the “tampon tax.”
In November 2020, Scotland became the first country to make period products free. The new law puts a legal duty on local authorities to ensure anyone who needs period products can obtain them for free, "reasonably easily" and with "reasonable dignity.”
In January 2021, the U.K. also abolished the “tampon tax” from sanitary products. They also began rolling out free sanitary products in schools, colleges, and hospitals.
Beginning in June 2021, New Zealand began to provide free period products in all its schools.
Nonprofits including Period.org, The Pad Project, and Free The Tampons lead work globally to end period poverty and stigma through services, product distribution, education, and advocating to end the “tampon tax.”
A mother-daughter duo in Philadelphia — Lynette Medley and her daughter, Nya McGlone — started The SPOT, a community-funded project to provide an array of services including free menstrual products (hand-delivered to your doorstep!), educational resources, access to clean water and toilets, a computer room, first period kits, and a Breonna Taylor safe room for “marginalized women to escape the dangers of the world.”