Written by Charlotte Smith.
Period poverty and stigma is an issue across the world, in both high- and low-income countries. Countries are staring to recognise and work to break down the issue although there is still much work to be done. Here explores the situation and work in two vastly different countries suffering from the same problem.
Scotland has become the first country in the world to provide free, universal access to period products. This is the result of a four-year campaign by Scottish Labour Health spokeswoman, Monica Lennon and pressure from various grassroots campaigners. The bill places a duty on local authorities to ensure anyone who needs period products can obtain them for free, and passed unanimously through Scottish Parliament.
The bill aims to tackle period poverty, which is when those on low incomes can’t afford or access suitable period products. A survey by charity Young Scot, found that one in four respondents in Scotland had struggled to access products, well above the UK average. This resulted in them using newspaper, toilet paper or anything else at their disposal, which can be both uncomfortable and unhygienic. In Scotland, period products were already funded in schools, colleges, universities and some other public places such as sports clubs. It’s not uncommon to find free products by the sinks in toilets.
According to charity Bloody Good Period, period poverty has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic and they are supplying almost six times as many products as before the pandemic started. 700 packs of products went to NHS workers who were working such long hours they couldn’t get to the shops and when they did they often found empty shelves from stockpiling. Other requests were from students who were in self-isolation or had lost a part-time job or girls who had lost the safety net of free period products from schools. Packs were also sent out to refugees and homeless shelters.
The bill also aims break down the stigma around periods, aiming for them to be viewed as a natural physical process instead of something to be hidden. This issue occurs all over the world to this day – The International Women’s Health Coalition found around 5000 slang words for periods in ten different languages. This can have an often-overlooked impact on girls’ education and self-esteem, as well as fuelling myths and harassment in many countries.
In India, 120 million adolescent girls are uneducated on menstrual health, they are shy to talk about their periods due to taboos and superstitions. Many find themselves forbidden to touch household objects, denied entry into temples or even sent to live in a separate hut from their families.
It’s also reported only 36% of India’s menstruating females use sanitary napkins, with others using potentially dangerous old rags, leaves, mud or soil. The current coronavirus pandemic has worsened matters, with lockdown restricting people’s ability to retrieve products. Some schools do give out sanitary products and the school closure has left many struggling. With family members losing their jobs, girls worry about asking for the money to pay for products and making their families choose between food or sanitary products.
The Dasra Foundation found that 71% of girls in India were unaware of menstruation until it happened to them, and 70% of mothers surveyed considered menstruation ‘dirty’. This hush hush environment has consequences – the same Dasra report found girls are absent from 20% of the school year due to their period. Furthermore, nearly 23 million girls drop out of school completely a year. Not only are their practical issues with the absence of safe toilet facilities in schools but many have issues of pain, shame and anxiety about staining their clothes.
Steps are currently being made by many states to improve facilities and educational awareness, but the decades old stigma is an even bigger issue. Reaching girls to solve this has mostly come from smaller NGOs such as Menstrupedia, which publishes a comic book on menstruation in 15 languages which has reached 10,000 schools so far. Or, of course, from the students themselves, as education starts to help them break the stigma for themselves.