Why tackling period poverty is an issue for everyone

Thousands of girls and women in the UK do not have access to menstrual hygeine products.

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What if we told you that we have a simple way of promoting sustainable economic growth and women’s equality, all the while tackling extreme poverty? Women and girls should have access to menstrual products, and should feel empowered to use them, not undermined by stigma or taboo.

Neglected as a point of priority in wider healthcare policymaking despite being something that affects half of the world’s population, periods are regularly shrouded in mystery. But periods are not just a women’s issue, they are a human issue and part of the fabric of society’s general wellbeing and productivity.

This year, governments around the world will be asked to report on their progress against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – the organisation’s blueprints for how to tackle global challenges, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, health and social justice. Against the backdrop of rising populism and the #MeToo women’s movement gathering pace, citizens are voicing their anger towards global leaders and the failed status quo. So, as all countries reflect on the state and wellbeing of their population, this is a unique opportunity to address the persistent inequalities in the modern world.

Menstruation, in fact, is linked to sustainable economic growth. Tackling the stigma of menstruation should go hand in hand with education and reliable products to manage periods, which will empower women, rather than undermine them.

Women all over the world still walk around trying to disguise the fact they are on their period, and many are trying to find ways to manage it comfortably. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be laughable. The menstrual cycle makes the world go round. This is a fact of life. It should be an equaliser amongst women and men. But sadly that is far from the case.

The backwards thinking around periods prevents many women from reaching their full potential at work. And when women do not reach their full potential, everybody loses. The UK Women’s Equality Party argues: “Unleashing women's full potential could add ten per cent, or over £180bn, to the [country’s] GDP by 2030 if all the women that wanted to work did so. That's £2,850 for each and every one of us”.

Period poverty is an issue that spans the globe. We may imagine that a person’s experience of menstruation in the UK has very little or nothing in common with young girl in Uganda. Yet, the parallels are more striking than perhaps you would expect. Irise International works globally to educate and to profile shared experiences in East Africa and Europe. In the UK, as well as Uganda, many girls do not have access to the products to effectively manage their bleeding. Research from the children's charity Plan International UK found that one in ten young women (between the ages of 14 and 21) have been unable to afford period products.

One young Ugandan girl, a report from Irise found, “didn’t know anything” about menstrual health, leading her to her stain her dress while on her period. She was so embarrassed by the ordeal, the report said, that she “spent a week at home”, too traumatised to return to school. And in the UK, another girl told Irise: “My sister gets very anxious whenever on her period because she is worried about leaking and what people will think. This makes her not want to leave the house.”

The Cup Effect is a charity that promotes awareness about menstrual cups and campaigns to make them more widely available. Menstrual cups are a lesser-known alternative to pads, tampons, or cloth. The cups, which are usually bell-shaped and made of flexible medical grade silicone, are reusable for up to ten years. Menstrual cups have enormous potential to help to reduce period-related school absence and reduce the environmental waste generated by disposable female hygiene products.

Governments, NGOs and the wider public sector have an important role to play in ensuring that all women and girls have access to the best period products. Clearly, the profit-making manufacturers of disposable menstrual products cannot be relied upon and have no incentive to do this work, because, in the most basic terms, cups are a threat to their commercial interests.

Access to products, though, is just part of the solution to period poverty. Early-stage education is key. Between 2012 and2014 in Uganda’s Kamuli District, a trial to test whether school attendance improved when girls were given either reusable sanitary pads or education, or a combination of both, was conducted in partnership between the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and Plan International Uganda.

Over 1,000 girls were provided with AFRIpads –  a washable, reusable cloth pad produced in Uganda –  and locally trained community health nurses held sessions that covered changes which occur during puberty, menstruation, and early pregnancy, and on the prevention of HIV.

The project significantly strengthened awareness that pad provision and puberty education are both vital in improving attendance. Even in the absence of resources to provide pads, it is evident that the inclusion of adequate and puberty education in the school curriculum can lead to improved attendance.

The failure to support women to manage their periods is a loss for society at large. Assumptions that women are less efficient while menstruating, the stigmatisation of a natural life process and the relative underdevelopment of the reusable menstrual product market must all be addressed. Politicians and policymakers need to be a driving force behind making a change. This is not just a feminist issue. This is a human issue.

Emily Wilson Smith is founder and director of Irise International and an honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield.

Mandu Reid is founder of The Cup Effect and national spokesperson of the UK’s Women’s Equality Party.

Catherine Dolan is a researcher at University of London, School of African and Oriental Studies.