Who Can’t Afford to Menstruate?

The need to make menstrual management economically sustainable for allWho can't afford to menstruate

The global discourse on period dignity goes hand in hand with economic sustainability of menstrual management. It takes only a quick review of the relevant literature to see how closely linked “period shame” is to the accessibility of hygiene infrastructure and affordability of hygiene products. In our article on Menstrual Education and Period Dignity we acknowledged that period dignity was a greater challenge for girls in economically weaker communities.

Period management is widely nuanced depending on region, community and economic background. It’s quite fascinating and chilling at the same time to learn about how women across the world manage their periods, particularly in rural areas. Their experiences are a reflection of awareness and sensitivity towards menstruation in society, or the alarming lack of it.

Resource-poor countries have their work cut out for them

Several studies conducted in African Nations have established the link between menstruation and school absenteeism. Schoolgirls in rural Zambia would rather stay home than be uncomfortable, inactive and embarrassed due to inadequate facilities. Malawi girls reported that toilets lacking privacy affected their attendance. Only 14% girls reported having access to water and soap at school! A Ugandan study indicated a huge urban–rural disparity in access to sanitary napkins. Only 37% of urban girls used modern methods such as sanitary napkins – which is a poor score – but that number fell to under 2% in the case of rural girls! In many African communities, women aren’t allowed to discard bloodied cloth for the fear of use in witchcraft and black magic.  

In Nepal, a disturbing ancient custom called Chhaupadi is practiced where menstruating women are banished to a hut. Women suffer serious health problems and even deaths due to this custom. Chhaupadi was criminalised by the government only in 2017 and is still in practice in some villages.

India, touted to be on a fast-track to modernisation, is only catching up on menstrual awareness. Even today, women in Indian villages use cloth that they wash secretly at night, drying them out in hidden spots before reuse. The health impact of this is imaginably adverse, as observed in a recent study conducted by U.S. NIH in the state of Odisha, India, which concluded that a strong causation exists between the use of reusable absorbent cloth and reproductive tract infections.

Menstruation needs of women in affluent countries

If you’re under the impression that developed nations are doing great you’re in for a rude shock. A recent study of low-income women living in the US showed that nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed did not have the money to buy menstrual hygiene products during the past year. 46% of women surveyed had to choose between food and menstrual hygiene products at some point.

Research by The University of Queensland and WaterAid Australia on menstrual practices of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples identified lack of products, privacy, pain management resources, puberty education, and access to functioning health hardware as key problems faced by these communities.

Resource-poor nations garner worthy attention, but the unmet menstrual hygiene needs of high income countries, particularly in economically backward communities remain underrepresented. 

Sustainability and the great divide

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals aimed at improvements to health and wellbeing, gender equity, and sanitation and hygiene initiatives are targeted at countries like the African nations, Nepal and India, whereas adequate attention to high-income countries has been lacking.

There is an evident economic divide in how women of different backgrounds manage their period. Consider yourself privileged if it’s hard for you to fathom the cultural beliefs around periods, curious practices, and societal apathy towards basic women-friendly public infrastructure. What is equally troubling is that the lack of period dignity is also contributing to the great gender divide. Millions of women are being denied an active part in the mainstream.

Menstrual management should be economically sustainable for all

It is encouraging to note that every intervention programme aimed at providing access to affordable period products along with education has been met with positive results in terms of adoption of hygiene practices. Clearly, governments and NGOs can create a huge impact in the cause of universal period dignity if the intent is in place. Medical innovations that make menstrual management more affordable and even environmentally safe (for example menstrual cups), go a long way, but steps have to be taken to encourage adoption of these methods.

The sustainability topic is incomplete without addressing the environmental aspect but that’s a whole different discussion. We at MCA Online want to help raise awareness of the lack of period dignity and sustainability in both developed and developing countries. We invite you to be part of the cause and share this message. You can also be a part of helping relieve this issue by choosing a cup brand that makes it their mission to provide period dignity to others.

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