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Period Poverty and Gender Justice

In our Spring 2023 issue of Connected, we look at the toxic trio of period poverty, sharing examples from MU contacts in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Zambia and Argentina. This article continues to reflect on this issue.

21 Mar 2023

When something happens inside you, it has profound intimacy and immediacy. When it is unexpected or not understood, it can be very frightening- especially for the young.

Periods are a reality for people around the globe and have a profound impact on daily lives, during puberty and beyond. In some cultures, talking about periods is completely taboo. In others it is, officially at least, accepted and facilities provided – and yet girls still struggle with anxiety and shame. It is rarely seen in a positive light – at best an inconvenience, at worst completely debilitating.

When we hear the term ‘period poverty’ we may be unclear on what that means. Or we might assume it relates to not being able to afford period products – and indeed this seems to be the focus of some governments as they work to tackle this. It does, of course, constitute part of it – but the meaning is actually wider. It’s been called the ‘toxic trio’ of period poverty – the inability to afford products, but also a ‘poverty’ of education about periods and, thirdly, the stigma surrounding periods.

The idea that periods are somehow ‘dirty’ is still prevalent – whether owing to traditional, religious or cultural influences or the simple experience of dealing with bleeding and staining, which is a natural source of anxiety for girls everywhere.

Teenagers feel embarrassment acutely. Girls going through puberty are subject to a vast hormonal shift. Being affected by the physical process of the menstrual cycle only increases the impact of this. There is also the issue that some are affected more than others – heavier flow, more pain – and then those who deal with conditions such as endometriosis (which is hard to get diagnosed even in parts of the world it is well known). As with any human experience, there us both commonality and diversity. Pain ranges from flinching to bent-double anguish, each girl having her own journey. For those experiencing the effects of menstruation at a more intense level, misery and embarrassment become more severe.

In the global south, provision of products and access to education varies immensely between rural and urban areas. Some remote communities have very little access at all – and traditional taboos surrounding monthly bleeding means that the issue is simply not talked about. In some cultures, girls are confined to a house or even a shed for the duration of their period, as it is seen as being unclean. The onset of menstruation can also be seen as the moment when a child becomes a woman - it is celebrated. However, this can result in the adolescent child, now seen, culturally, as a woman becomes ‘marriage material’ - regardless how young. This results in child brides, perpetuating cycles of inappropriate sexual encounters for the age of the girl, gender-based violence and the dangers of child birth for one so young.

When it comes to resources, it’s not just about towels and tampons, but taps and toilets – the provision of appropriate private sanitation facilities. The worry of clothes being stained and being teased, especially by boys, understandably occurs wherever girls go to school. The lack of control over what their bodies are doing can be distressing – and where there are no private facilities for girls to change pads or clean themselves, they may stop attending school for the duration of their period, or even stop attending altogether, as was noted in our Connected article.

Walking long distances to facilities – including for those in humanitarian camps – makes it even more distressing and difficult. Lack of privacy can drive girls and women to use outside spaces, outside the safety of schools and communities, putting them at risk from other factors – gender-based violence, animal attack and disease, owing to poor sanitation. As with so many development issues, one thing impacts another – especially, in this case, gender equality.

Through the impact of no safe access and misunderstanding over the nature of periods – risk of gender-based violence can increase, as can health risks from overusing pads, dirty rags or not being able to wash properly. With lack of school attendance, educational opportunities decrease.

In wealthier countries, places providing free products, education and support were closed during lockdowns, so the pandemic affected girls in this way too. Now, with the cost-of-living crisis, everything is harder to afford – when all money is spent paying food and household bills, where do the girls get their period products? When poverty and periods BOTH carry feelings of shame – however unjustified – it is doubly hard to ask for help. This can make it hard to get a sense of where help is needed.

Talking about periods is not easy for girls, even in cultures where it is acceptable or even encouraged – having to request assistance is difficult and embarrassing. It’s tough looking or feeling ‘different’ from your peers, fearing being teased, struggling to put things into words. This can mean that it’s difficult to find out the extent of period poverty in some areas, because girls don’t want to talk about periods – and when part of the issue is a wider poverty problem with the family struggling to pay the bills, it can feel even more shaming.

Despite it being theoretically less taboo in some areas of the world, it’s still often veiled in polite language, hint dropping and reading between the lines. For some of those under the widening banner of neurodiversity, this can be a big challenge. A person who understands things very literally won’t find polite metaphors or vague hints remotely helpful – and just feel more confused.

It can be hard to find out what’s needed in regard to this issue, because of reluctance to talk about it. In some areas of the world, schools and even some food banks appear to ‘have things covered’, but it is still worth reflecting on the following: Where might this be a struggle for women and girls? What facilities do we provide in our churches and venues for women and girls? What about women’s refuges? People seeking asylum? Can we get involved in making reusable sanitary products? How can we promote awareness of this issue in other areas, or support those who are doing things to help?

We asked our global call participants to answer the following questions for us and were grateful for the responses. You may wish use them for your own reflections/discussions.

  • How often are periods talked about in your community?
  • What particular challenges are girls facing? Do they have anyone they can talk to about it?
  • Do you feel there is adequate provision in terms of toilet facilities and access /affordability of period products in your area?
  • Are there any MU groups who are working to raise awareness about period poverty or related issues?
  • In what ways do you see this issue affecting gender equality?