Author: Jacqueline Masssiah-Simeon and Aashrita Mohess, SAEDI Consulting (Barbados) Inc.
What is Period Poverty?
Period poverty describes the struggle many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products (UNFPA 2022). The term also refers to the increased economic vulnerability women and girls face due to the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies. These include not only menstrual pads and tampons, but also related costs such as pain medication and underwear. The vulnerabilities are further compounded by a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or a combination of these (Medical News Today 2021).
As many as 500 million people (women, girls, non-binary persons, and transgender men) cannot afford or lack access to menstrual products, and proper hygiene facilities during menstruation (The World Bank 2018 as cited in Hassenstab 2023). The cost of menstrual product such as pads, tampons, menstrual cups, and menstrual panties are high, topped with high taxes. When considered along with existing poverty, one can imagine this situation being further exacerbated by the lack of access to clean water, soap, and proper bathrooms.
While there has been little attention paid to period poverty in the Caribbean, Rambocas et al (2023) stated that of 504 women interviewed in Trinidad and Tobago, 76% did not believe that period products are affordable, 51% reported that they struggled to obtain period products, 55% indicated that they had to borrow or change their current brand of the period product, and 51% revealed that they had to improvise or use alternative products such as toilet paper, napkins, and paper towels. The vast majority, 99%, felt that their workplace and schools provide them with these products.
Social stigma around the period, lack of access to needed supplies, poor hygiene conditions, proper waste management, and lack of education around menstruation; all combine to create situations of shame about menstruation, coupled with low productivity, low school attendance and dropping out of school. For instance, in India as many as 23 million girls have dropped out of school, and as much as 70% of Canadian women and girls reported missing school or work (IISD 2022).
The stigma associated with periods exists in many parts of the world for instance, in Nepal, women are banished to huts during menstruation because the community perceives them as “impure.”; 70% of girls in Uganda fear menstrual-related accidents and feel shame around their period; 50% of girls in the UK said they feel shame around their period; and 41% of girls in Ontario, Canada, said friends, colleagues, and relatives have teased them about being on their period (Ibid). More recently, a viral video of a women MP in the Kenyan Parliament, clearly showed the discomfort around talking about the period, even for women (India Today 2023).
Then the health risks associated with period poverty. Extended use of some menstrual products can negatively impact health, not being able to change tampons as frequently as necessary can lead to the build-up of bacteria causing toxic shock syndrome, and dioxin, the chemical used for bleaching the fibres in the production of menstrual products can cause cancer. The prolonged use of menstrual products and some alternatives that women us (for example chicken feathers, mud, cow dung) can cause urinary tract infections. These health issues can be exacerbated by the lack of clean water and poor sanitation.
The impact of disposable feminine hygiene products on the environment should also be considered. Approximately 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons, and applicators are disposed of in North American landfills annually. If these feminine hygiene products are wrapped in plastic bags, it can take centuries for them to decompose naturally. Throughout a woman’s lifetime, she typically utilizes more than 11,000 tampons, which results in long-lasting residue that extends far beyond her own lifespan (Harvard Digital Initiative 2016). This translates to an excess of 28,000 pounds of waste (Truman 2018).
Disposable menstrual pads have the most substantial environmental impact. This is due to the significant depletion of minerals and fossil fuels during their production, their estimated carbon footprint, and the volume of both wet and dry waste they generate. However, single-use tampons, typically made with organic cotton often have plastic applicators, which make a significant contribution to the overall plastic waste issue. An important consideration, however, is that cotton crops are known to use massive amounts of water relative to other crops and require pesticides in order to grow, causing other serious impacts on the environment.
Period products also have a direct impact on the world’s oceans and marine life. As disposable products and their plastic packaging break down, they generate microplastics, which have been proven to disrupt marine ecosystems and pose a significant danger to oceanic environments. Furthermore, when menstrual products are improperly flushed down toilets, they directly impact marine habitats. Single-use menstrual products and their packaging are frequently found littering beaches and polluting the ocean, making them one of the most encountered items in these areas (Harrison and Tyson 2022).
The Fight to Reduce Period Poverty
There are several campaigns across the world aimed at reducing period poverty. The campaign with global reach is by the global brand Always®. The campaign #EndPeriodPoverty started in March 2018, and to date has distributed more than 50 million period products globally. Always® donated of 160,000 pads to help vulnerable girls and women in Trinidad and Tobago (Loop T&T News 2022).
Also, in Trinidad and Tobago NGOs and others who work in Social Services have flagged it as a silent issue affecting women and girls from low-income households. Feminine products are accessible for many, but affordability remains an issue for some persons in Trinidad and Tobago (Digicel Foundation 2021).
On Tuesday 14th December 2021, Vanna Motilal, Group Internal Auditor, led an initiative to distribute sanitary products to eight women in the Penal/Debe region utilising her TT$5000 funding received as part of Digicel Foundation’s #ShareMore Christmas initiative, and Jeanine Brandt, Miss World T&T 2021 has added a Period Poverty Campaign to her Beauty With a Purpose Project through her Foundation (The Brandt Beauty Foundation). This Campaign will seek to educate and provide feminine Hygiene products (mainly Sanitary Pads) to young girls in underprivileged communities throughout Trinidad and Tobago (Facebook 2021).
Maji na Ufanisi, is a Kenyan non-governmental organization fights period poverty that provides clean water, sanitation, and hygiene solutions to low-income communities. The NGO, in collaboration with Padmad distributes reusable pads to schoolgirls in Kenya.
While no studies on period poverty have been conducted in Guyana, First Lady Arya Ali recognised the impact of period poverty, particularly for girls in the hinterland regions, and launched the Menstrual Hygiene Initiative in 2021. In the first instance the aim is to donate one year supply of pads to 30,000 schoolgirls across Guyana. It is intended that the campaign will be expanded in the future to capture vulnerable women.
Ending Period Poverty
Ending period poverty requires better educational campaigns on menstruation to reduce stigma and discrimination associated with social norms, and the intervention of government through policies and legislation to reduce the cost of menstrual products.
The Red Cross (Trinidad and Tobago) Know Your Flow in partnership with Edgewell Personal Care and Helping Her Foundation, is a good example of a comprehensive approach to education around menstrual issues. The programme captures the views of both men and women, to understand the linkages between, and impact of poverty, culture, health, gender, and education on Menstrual Health and Hygiene in Trinidad and Tobago and to move the conversation beyond a women-only to a whole-of Society and public health concern (Trindad & Tobago Red Cross Society 2021).
According to World Bank (2022) “Tackling these issues requires a holistic approach that brings together education and awareness on menstruation, menstrual hygiene products, and female-friendly infrastructure. Crucially, these elements cannot be achieved without an enabling policy environment.”
A first step at the policy/legislative level can be consideration of reduction or complete removal of taxes from menstrual products. Menstruation is a biological fact, not a choice, one cannot opt out. The Alliance for Period Supplies (2022) argues that menstrual products are essential and should be seen as a basic need. The alliance further states that people who menstruate require approximately 40 period products per cycle, the reduction or removal of taxes will help people who menstruate better afford the products, increase participation in school and work, and reduce the negative impact on educational and health outcomes (Ibid).