Period poverty leaves 500 million people in menstrual oblivion

Factors such as lack of access to clean water, sanitation facilities, and inadequate sexual health education perpetuate period poverty

May 19, 2023 01:02 pm | Updated 01:59 pm IST

Image for representational purpose only.

Image for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: PTI

Menstruation is a natural biological process experienced by 24%-26% of the global population aged 15-49. With an average menstrual span of 35 years, individuals require approximately 15,000-20,000 disposable sanitary pads or vaginal tampons during their lifetime. This means approximately 300 million women and transgender, non-binary individuals menstruate daily, amounting to a staggering 1.8 billion monthly. Unfortunately, period poverty affects nearly 500 million individuals, particularly those in low-middle-income and low-income groups, due to limited access to safe and hygienic menstrual products.

Addressing period poverty

Various factors, including lack of access to clean water, sanitation facilities, and inadequate sexual health education, perpetuate period poverty. The consequences of period poverty extend beyond health and become a complex public health, social, and environmental issue. To ensure equitable development, period poverty must be addressed alongside other critical health indicators such as maternal, neonatal, and infant health.

Menstrual stigma

Menstruation is often shrouded in myths, taboos, and patriarchal norms, leading to a negative perception in many societies. However, menstrual health is intrinsically linked to six of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: No poverty, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, all to be achieved by 2030. Recognising menstrual health as a significant population health indicator is essential to achieving these goals.

Impacts on education and health

Limited access to water and sanitation facilities hampers education, with nearly 25% of girls unable to attend school due to menstrual-related challenges. Additionally, approximately 50% of menstruating women in economically disadvantaged countries cannot afford safe menstrual products. Poor menstrual hygiene can lead to reproductive and urinary tract infections, resulting in infertility and complications during pregnancy. Educating communities about menstrual hygiene and providing free menstrual products by community health workers and nurses can alleviate these issues and contribute to better maternal outcomes and reduced teenage pregnancies.

‘Green period’

Environmental degradation and climate change have become pressing global concerns. As a result, there is a growing movement towards embracing eco-friendly menstrual practices known as the “Green Period.” Switching to biodegradable products like menstrual cups, reusable sanitary pads, and period underwear benefits women’s health and minimises the ecological footprint. Currently, sanitary pads dominate the market (89% usage), followed by menstrual cloth (4.5%), tampons (4.2%), and menstrual cups (1.6%). Encouraging the adoption of reusable menstrual hygiene products can significantly reduce plastic waste.

Disposable sanitary pads significantly contribute to environmental pollution, as each pad takes 500-800 years to degrade or must be incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals. With its limited land space and rising non-communicable diseases, advocating for reusable menstrual products has become imperative in India.

Menstrual health as a rights issue

Gender inequality continues to persist as a global challenge throughout the evolution of human civilisation. While progress has been made in areas such as voting rights, education, property ownership, work opportunities, and equal pay, menstruation remains an overlooked aspect in the fight for gender equality. It is crucial to recognise that menstrual health is not merely a health or environmental issue but a fundamental human rights issue.

In addition to education and awareness, there is a growing recognition of the need for paid menstrual leave for women experiencing heavy, painful periods that incapacitate them. Providing such leave allows women to prioritise their health and well-being, promoting gender equality in the workplace. To achieve true social justice and gender equality, the elimination of period poverty must be a priority. Governments, policymakers, and civil society must work together to ensure that every individual, regardless of socioeconomic background, has access to affordable and hygienic menstrual products. Furthermore, efforts should be directed towards promoting environmentally friendly menstrual practices, such as the use of reusable products, to minimise waste and reduce the ecological impact.

(Poongothai Aladi Aruna is a gynaecologist, MLA and a former Minister in the Tamil Nadu Government)

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