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Period Poverty 101: Definition, Facts, Ways to Take Action

Every month, women, girls, trans men, and nonbinary persons have a period. According to UNICEF, around 1.8 billion people menstruate. Stigma, discrimination, poverty and other issues can make this time of the month difficult and even dangerous. Experts refer to these challenges and barriers to care as “period poverty.” In this article, we’ll explore the definition of period poverty, the facts everyone should know and the best ways to take action.

Period poverty happens when someone can’t access menstrual products, good sanitation, social support and education. While it’s a serious public health issue, many people are unaware of its extent or how to address it.

What is period poverty?

Before discussing period poverty, let’s review what a period is. A period is a part of the menstrual cycle, which is a part of the reproductive system. It affects people who can become pregnant. Typical cycles last between 24-38 days, and when a person gets their period, the cycle begins again. During a period, a person sheds the lining of their uterus, causing bleeding from the vagina. Typical periods last between three days to a week.

When people who ovulate get their first periods, which is usually around 12 years old, they often face new challenges. The first is access to menstrual products and education. If someone can’t get pads or tampons – or doesn’t know how to use them – their period is a very stressful time. School, work and other opportunities are often disruptive. A person’s physical health can suffer as well. As an example, heavy periods, which are periods that cause too much bleeding or bleeding for too long, can lead to complications like anemia and severe pain.

People can also face increased mental and emotional stress, which may be heightened by stigma and discrimination. As the International Planned Parenthood Federation explains, many communities see periods as being “unclean.” This discourages people from seeking help when needed, visiting public spaces or going about their lives as normal. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the onset of menstruation can also increase a person’s sexual vulnerability. They may be viewed as “ready” for sex and marriage even though periods can start as young as seven years old. According to the World Health Organization, period poverty affects at least 500 million women and girls. True numbers are hard to identify.

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What should everyone know about period poverty?

Period poverty is a major public health issue around the world, but many people don’t know what it is or the extent of the problem. Here are the most important facts:

#1. Period poverty happens everywhere, but it’s harder to have a period in sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes countries like Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda, faces significant barriers to proper menstrual hygiene. According to the World Bank, 35% of the population in 2019 lived in extreme poverty. It makes sense that period poverty would be an issue, too. Sanitary pads and other supplies are often too expensive. According to a survey by the BBC, women working minimum wage jobs in Ghana spend $1 out of every $7 they earn on pads. In contrast, people earning minimum wage in the United States spend $3 out of every $1,200.

#2. Period poverty has a huge impact on the right to education

People of any gender can get a period, but period poverty affects more women and girls, which in turn affects their ability to access education. Globally, around 129 million girls are not going to school. Period poverty is one of the reasons why. The World Bank reports that in South Sudan, 57% of girls said they stayed home during their periods, while in Kenya, 70% of girls said their periods hurt their grades. Education is key to a girl’s future, but when their periods disrupt their attendance and grades, a bright future may be dimmed. Girls may even drop out of school entirely, which reduces their employment opportunities.

#3. Period poverty can cause serious health problems

When having a period, people need access to appropriate supplies, such as pads, tampons, menstrual cups and so on. However, when these supplies are unaffordable or otherwise inaccessible, people use what they can find. According to an editorial in The Lancet, makeshift supplies include newspapers, rags, leaves and even breadcrumbs. The resulting health issues, like infections, can be debilitating and even fatal. Even when people do have access to reusable pads or cups, they can be hard to clean without clean water, electricity or gas.

#4. Period poverty, stigma and discrimination affect people’s mental health, too

Period poverty doesn’t only impact physical health. The stress of trying to access appropriate supplies, as well as the stigma and discrimination surrounding bleeding, can cause severe anxiety and depression. According to an article in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, one study in Nepal revealed that girls were forced to sleep outside or in separate huts while having their periods, creating “severe psychological outcomes.” Even in places without such extreme practices, stigma still exists in the embarrassment people feel when buying supplies, the coded phrases for periods and the general lack of education about menstruation. This sends the message that periods are shameful and disgusting.

Addressing period poverty is part of improving health equity. Here’s our article on what health equity is and why it matters.

#5. Incarcerated people face worse rates of period poverty

The rights of incarcerated people are frequently violated. They’re physically and psychologically abused, given arbitrary punishments, denied medical care and so on. The United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, also has a period poverty problem in its prison system. According to a story reported by USA Today, pads in one prison cost $2.63, but jobs paid as little as 30 cents an hour. Instead of saving pennies to afford pads, some people would try making their own supplies, or, with no other options, they would just bleed through their clothes. People with heavy periods or other health issues face even more barriers to care. At the time of writing, more than 35 states don’t have menstrual care protections for incarcerated people, and in the states that do, enforcement of those protections is lacking.

How do you take action against period poverty?

With hundreds of millions of people affected, period poverty is a global health issue. Everyone, including those who don’t get a period, can find ways to take action. Here are five examples:

#1. Talk about period poverty

Many people don’t know about period poverty due to the stigma around the topic. If you want to take action against it, the first step is to get comfortable talking about it. Bring it up with your social network, find advocacy organizations and identify ways to raise awareness. Every community has period poverty to some degree, so it shouldn’t be hard to find opportunities to talk about it.

#2. Donate to organizations focused on period poverty

Most women’s rights and gender equality organizations address period poverty in some way, but there are organizations focused on the issue. The Alliance for Period Supplies, the Pad Project and Project Dignity are just three examples. These organizations raise awareness of period poverty, hold educational workshops, distribute supplies and much more. By donating, you can help support their mission to end period poverty and protect the rights of millions. What about donating supplies? Many local groups accept pad, tampon and cup donations, but financial donations are often preferred as they help address the surrounding issues, such as a lack of clean water and education.

Check out our article on menstrual justice organizations working around the world.

#3. Research what specific period poverty issues affect your community

Period poverty affects every community, but the specifics vary significantly. As an example, a lack of clean water is one of the biggest barriers to menstrual hygiene in sub-Saharan Africa, while in the United States, most people can access safe water and good sanitation. If you want to take action on a local level, research what specific issues are making life harder for people who menstruate. With more detailed information, any work you do will have a greater impact.

#4. Support legislation addressing period poverty

Laws that address the gender pay gap, workplace discrimination, school funding, the rights of incarcerated people and more all have the power to help or harm the battle against period poverty. While the legislative process varies from country to country, everyone can find ways to make their opinions heard. In places like the United States, which uses a representative form of government, people can write to politicians encouraging action on laws impacting period poverty. By increasing legal protections, communities can improve the lives of people for years to come.

#5. Host a fundraiser

Fundraisers are a great way to raise awareness and money for a good cause. You can use the opportunity to connect with local businesses and social justice organizations, as well as people who share your values. Depending on what needs you want to address, you can also invite people to donate supplies rather than money. Food banks and shelters always need pads, tampons, and cups, but they’re often not donated because people don’t realize how important they are. Keep track of your donations carefully, and if possible, let participants know the impact of their gifts.

Interested in becoming a community activist? Check out our article on how to get started.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.