S O C I E T Y – G E N D E R & H E A L T H
Tahia Afra Jannati
When officials in New Zealand announced that all schools in the country will offer free sanitary products to students starting in June, it once again shed some light on the right to menstrual hygiene, which can also be deemed as a human rights issue. This important and necessary initiative aims to combat period poverty.
In 2020, Scotland set an unprecedented example by becoming the first country in the world to make menstrual products free for those who are in need. Some other countries have followed suit and have been contemplating similar schemes to commit to providing free period products to young students.
But what is the situation of period poverty in the third-world countries, especially in Bangladesh, where this simple natural cycle is still considered a major social taboo and the right to menstrual hygiene is seen as a luxury?
First off, we need to discuss what period poverty actually is and to what length such a usual part of life hinders female education, physical and mental health.
What is period poverty?
Period poverty is the inability to access necessary sanitary products due to financial limitations or the lack of resources to afford hygiene products; period poverty also means the absence of sufficient menstrual hygiene education. Many women and girls don’t have adequate access to toilets, hand washing receptacles, proper waste management, and other hygienic facilities. Girls and women, particularly from low-income families, cannot afford or access suitable period products, a problem faced by all countries around the world.
Developing countries in the third world grapple with the issue of period poverty, which violates the basic human rights of millions of women. They are being held back from engaging in daily life activities and often are put in harm’s way; all because of their inability to manage their period in a healthy manner, unmet menstrual product needs, and all the shame and taboo associated with their cycle.
However, period poverty is more than just affordability. Females may feel uncomfortable to manage their periods in a proper manner. In short, period poverty prevents low-income menstruating women from bleeding with dignity often due to social stigma or superstitious or religious dogma around menstruation.
Period poverty in Bangladesh
Period poverty is quite apparent all across Bangladesh. Period products are deemed as a privilege by many people rather than a basic right. One of the studies conducted by The World Bank revealed that only around 23% of Bangladeshi women have the ability to use proper menstrual hygiene products. Approximately 95% of the female population cannot afford either sanitary pads or other period products. This leads to various health hazards and as a result, many girls and women are forced to skip school and work. A direct consequence of this is the increasing rate of school-girl dropouts.
Lack of proper knowledge and misinformation about menstruation are also incentives to period poverty. Only 6% schools in Bangladesh provide necessary menstrual hygiene education to their female pupils. Many young girls are oblivious to proper and healthy management of their period, while 36% of them have absolutely no knowledge about menstruation. Ultimately, this leads to one in four girls being absent from school and all kind of academic activities during their natural cycle.
Gabby Edlin reveals in her book It’s Only Blood that in Bangladesh, millions of menstruating textile workers have to resort to putting a fistful of ‘joot’ down their pants or small leftover pieces of fabric that are left on the floors of their factories. The right to hygienic menstruation products seems like something everyone should agree with but unfortunately, in these cases, menstrual rights are seen as privileges granted only to a few.
Menstrual hygiene and health risk
Safe menstrual hygiene products like tampons and pads are largely unaffordable to most Bangladeshi females. Most women resort to unhygienic alternatives, such as rags, paper towels, and old or reused pads/cloths (over 80% of menstruating women and girls in Bangladesh use inadequate materials instead of hygienic products) which makes them more vulnerable to harmful physical outcomes that greatly increases the risks of skin irritation, urinary tract infections, and mildew or bacterial vaginosis.
Furthermore, the lack of accessible menstruation-friendly toilets, hand washing stations, and trash receptacles places pressure on women to develop coping strategies, such as eating and drinking less to avoid using the washroom, which then leads to eating disorders and malnutrition. Menstrual hygiene does not only concern females, it’s a pressing public health issue.
Period poverty and mental health implications
In Bangali culture, especially in rural areas, the cultural taboos surrounding menstruation lead many to believe that menstrual blood and menstruating women are dirty, polluted, and unclean; which reinforces a woman’s own feeling of immense shame regarding menstruation and low self-image. Period poverty can have a far-reaching negative effect on the whole lives of young women. The mental health implications of this issue are concerning. Due to period poverty and lack of proper knowledge, young girls suffer from fear. They begin to think there is something wrong with their bodies and fall into the trap of confusion and shame about the normal, healthy process of a period. Even as adults they have to face the repercussions.
Women who experience period poverty or other problems involving menstruation are more likely to suffer from various mental health issues, such as anxiety, severe depression or suicidal ideation. Inability to access menstrual hygiene products can also lead to low self-esteem and lack of confidence. When women fail to manage their period properly, they end up having food insecurity and overwhelming anxiety. Young women struggle to socialise and may find it difficult to cope with daily relationship dynamics. The shame, indignity, and social stigma associated with menstruation generally can be dehumanising which negatively impacts the overall existence of a woman in the long run.
Hindrance to overall women empowerment
The cultural beliefs and social norms that are as old as time place an enormous burden on menstruating women, limiting their potential as productive and contributing citizens as the society, ultimately stopping them from engaging in educational, cultural, social, and income-generating activity. When half of the population are refrained from participating in the development of the community, real progress is hindered. Women who have been through period poverty struggle to pay their bills and find employment. Absence from school and poor academic performance have a long-lasting serious effect on the future of young women.
Unmet needs uniquely contribute to their career and economic deprivation, above and beyond the effects of income or wealth. Period taboo is deeply rooted in gender inequality, and kyriarchal norms about women and girls’ status and place in society; women are expected to back down from normal activity. Social restriction, old religious beliefs, and myths lead to further isolation and stagnant daily life.
Many initiatives in Bangladesh have been taken to increase accessibility to menstrual products; nonprofits and shelters are continuously working to provide sanitary products to those in need. There are many opportunities to assist in addressing this critical, yet under-addressed issue. By regulating effective education about menstruation and menstruation health (both physical and psychological), girls and women can become more aware of their natural bodily functions and learn to properly manage their overall health. Adaptation and implementation of these strategies will lessen the shame and eradicate all the social taboos surrounding menstruation.
Menstrual hygiene products need to be made more accessible. Raising awareness, building a safe space for discussion, and providing free and cheap period products is another way for the government to address the pressing problem of period poverty, which can help increase school attendance and make a positive impact on young women’s overall wellbeing. Menstrual hygiene should be considered a basic need. Young women should be encouraged to normalise period, a natural function of their body. No woman should have to suffer or enjoy fewer opportunities because of period poverty.
Tahia finds solace in reading; she wholeheartedly believes she is similar to Jane Austen heroines. She wants to build a life worth living and has a list of countries she wants to visit. She is an optimist but an overthinker; ambitious but a procrastinator.