Code Red: Period Poverty is an Imperative Public Health Issue


Whenever my mother got her period during her adolescent years in India, she was prohibited from entering the temples in her community. She was instructed to stay out of the kitchen until after her cycle was over because a period of menstruation was thought of as a dirty and unholy time for a young woman. Feminine products were expensive, so she would have to wear and reuse one singular piece of cheesecloth or gauze instead. She could not discuss her cramping, nausea, or other effects with anyone, because it would be improper. For a long time, she thought it was abnormal to be feeling these things, making her unsure of her place as a woman in society and lowering her confidence to thrive in her environment.

Reproduction and anything related to it has always been stigmatized, particularly in places where cultural/religious norms surrounding it are associated with shame and embarrassment. Because menstruation is associated with reproduction, this creates a disparity in global menstrual health (MH). According to the NIH, Period-poverty, which can be defined as limited access to MH resources and education, is experienced worldwide, even in underserved communities in the United States, such as areas with lower socioeconomic statuses, correctional facilities, etc. This includes physical/financial access to period products, sanitation facilities, and knowledge, all of which should be basic human rights for those who menstruate. Moreover, period-products are inelastic, expensive goods, made even more costly by luxury sales taxes.While cloth provides a modest alternative to synthetic product material, a lack of adequate locked and private water and hygiene facilities in underprivileged areas makes it unsafe for repeated use.

While there are humanitarian campaigns working towards these MH goals of alleviating the physical issue across the globe, the core of the MH epidemic lies in the gender inequality that plagues it. If there was less of a taboo on menstruation and overall reproductive health for women throughout history, women everywhere today would be able to express their natural rights safely.

In terms of physical resources, luxury taxes on period-products must be repealed, and distribution of products must be made a priority. Second, our governments must support developments of sanitation facilities ensuring safe changing/bathing spaces for those who menstruate, and waste-management systems that will properly dispose of used products.

More importantly, we should advocate for legislation to be passed that would actively work towards shifting societal attitudes regarding menstruation. For example, educational policy could be enacted that would ensure a well-rounded sex education for all students, not just female students. In order for society to shift away from the taboo, those of all genders should receive a comprehensive biological and social sex-education. Moreover, such policies endorsed by public figures would promote the deinstitutionalization of the stigmas against periods. Normalizing safe conversations between all genders contributes to reducing the patriarchal prejudice about periods, allowing society to move away from systematic ignorance about menstruation.

Hearing my mother’s story, I recognized how privileged I am that my family and socioeconomic status have allowed me to live in an environment where I can be safe, sanitary, and informed with my menstruation, and how imperative it is that all girls have this protection. As members of our global community, we should strive to protect our women in all facets. Gender inequality is the primary factor in determining the social accessibility of MH. Working towards closing that gap through education-policy is an important step for the safety and health of women who face period-poverty.

(By Radha Vinayak)

(Image Credit: Galchester / Saskia Tolka)

(Radha Vinayak, a Public Health student, is passionate about bridging the health equity gap for women across different socioeconomic positions all over the globe)