Putting a Full Stop to Period Poverty and Menstrual Stigma

Written by Anushka Angle and Reese Spicer

Cover Design from Hemophilia Foundation of Michigan

In light of the highly esteemed International Day of the Girl Child that occurred on October 11, 2022, more awareness must be spread through society to address the stigma behind menstruation and period poverty – the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, and waste management. A common misconception among people is that period poverty and menstrual stigma exists only in third-world countries; however, nearly 1 in 5 girls in the United States have missed school due to lack of access to period products. 

To shed more light and awareness on celebrating the power of being women, International Day of the Girl Child recognizes their rights and unique challenges. Women comprise around half of the world’s population but, due to shame and social stigma, they may not speak publicly about their concerns. As the subject of periods is often not addressed, women may feel compelled to treat their periods as a taboo subject. Therefore, society must come together to create a more positive environment for women and their bodies. 

Menstrual Stigma 

Women across the world are united through the common experience of menstruation, a biological process allowing the shedding of the blood and tissue of the inner lining of the uterus. Despite 1.8 billion people menstruating each month, this natural occurrence is still surrounded by a social stigma. While the extent of this disapproval, or in some cases discrimination, varies from country to country, its impact on the lives of women of all cultures is still tremendous. 

The stigma surrounding menstruation exists in many forms, such as how it is discussed, or rather avoided, in conversation. Due to the term often being deemed dirty, 5000+ euphemisms – indirect terminology to refer to something considered unpleasant – have emerged across numerous languages. These euphemisms include “time of the month,” “code red,” and “la prima roja” (the red cousin) and allow individuals to avoid speaking the word “menstruation” altogether. These elusive terms advance the construct that menstruation is a social taboo. This construct is further shown in polls indicating 51% of US men believe that it is inappropriate for women to even refer to their menstrual cycle in the workplace, despite the impact that side effects including cramps and aches can have on workplace performance. Subsequently, 58% of women in the US feel embarrassed about their period, while 71% have hidden their pads/tampons from public view when going to the bathroom, an attempt to avoid the shame society has ingrained in women.

Images from THINX Surveys

Aside from the mere discomfort many feel with discussions related to this biological process, myths have surfaced across time regarding menstruating women. These myths range from the Bangladesh belief that unburied menstrual cloths will attract evil spirits to the Bolivian misconception that hugging or cradling a baby while menstruating will cause them to fall ill. Disgust and fear are instilled in individuals who fall victim to these hoaxes, regardless of whether they experience periods themselves. On the basis of false belief, a pathway for the discrimination of women is paved, with many cultures forbidding women in holy spaces. Not only does this discrimination isolate women from the religious aspect of society and violate their human rights, more extreme examples segregate women from society altogether. For example, in Nepal, menstruating women are expected to completely avoid contact with others due to the filth and dirt associated with menstruation. 

While some of the types of stigma represented above reflect extreme circumstances, stigma around menstruation includes any negative viewpoint, discrimination, or disapproval that women experience surrounding their menstruation. Statistics indicate that 42% of women in America have experienced period shaming; this percentage is an extremely large amount considering it is not a choice, but rather natural. After discussing the stigma surrounding menstruation in social settings and cultural beliefs, a subsequent question emerges: why is ending this stigma so important to women’s health and wellbeing?

In addition to myths and misconceptions validating discriminatory practices, they also alter the way women are regarded in society which can then harm their own mental depiction of themselves and their bodies. Many women, as mentioned previously, feel embarrassment or shame for menstruating. This shame, coupled with the taboo around discussions on the subject, leads to a lack of acknowledgement about women’s hygienic needs, causing many to lack proper sanitation. As a result of menstruation being deemed disgraceful, it has become a “women’s issue,” when in reality, it is a social issue.

How Period Poverty is Affecting Women’s Physical and Emotional Health 

Menstrual stigma not only affects the emotional wellbeing of women, but its impact further extends to physical health, evident worldwide in the struggle of “period poverty.” Period poverty is defined as financial constraints limiting access to tampons, pads, and menstrual cups, as well as to clean underwear, a sanitary and safe washroom, efficient waste management, and menstrual education. The price of menstrual products and services is already expensive considering sanitary pads must be changed regularly, yet many US states still place a sales tax on period products at the rate of luxury items, leaving around 500 million people across the world without access to adequate supplies. This lack of access isn’t only prevalent in third world countries but also in the United States, despite being one of the richest countries in the world. These taxes, aimed solely at women, are unreasonable. Access to these products are not optional, but are a medical necessity in order for a woman to maintain her health, wellbeing, and dignity. Apart from personal costs, those living in low-income communities do not necessarily have clean water or adequate bathrooms to privately and safely manage their menstruation.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned stigma leads to a society in which many women are unaware of proper hygiene. Women who experience difficulties with their period, such as unusual side effects or menstruation-related disorders, often feel ashamed to reach out for help due to the stigma, allowing the health issues to escalate. Lack of conversation regarding the menstrual cycle has also led to limited research funding; even if a woman does reach out for help when complications arise, the necessary knowledge may not be available. 

Image from Yoppie

These numerous struggles faced from period poverty are crucial human rights issues affecting women physically, economically, and emotionally. Firstly, women who are unable to afford sanitary supplies often resort to overusing used products or making their own at home, which are often not up to standards of safety. These makeshift products, in addition to negative effects from unsanitary facilities, lead to greater risk of a variety of infections. In terms of economics, not only do women have to afford luxury-taxed supplies, but they often miss school or work for period-related reasons, resulting in short- and long-term consequences. These consequences can be due to inadequate understanding of needs, such as pain and bathroom breaks, as well as shame from the smell or stains that can result from the lack of necessary resources. Each month, women don’t only experience their period but also the pain, shame, and stress that society has caused. 

Companies in Society Breaking the Menstrual Stigma 

To honor International Day of the Girl Child this year, healthcare company CVS has launched a Healthier Happens Together initiative which will take systematic steps to advance health equity; many women, especially those with low income, struggle to afford menstrual products. In an interview with Jake White, the vice president of consumer health care, pricing and analytics, and front store merchandising at CVS, he outlined the steps the company is taking to address period poverty. White explains how the company is reducing the price of period products by 25%, which omits the “menstrual tax” – a policy that does not allow for female hygiene products to be labeled as essentials. He also states, “Utah is one of the states where we will be absorbing the cost for the customers. It’s going to be automatically deducted from the transaction, so the customer doesn’t actually have to worry about it.” In addition to omitting the menstrual tax in Utah, CVS plans to partner with other advocacy organizations to mitigate the menstrual tax in a total of 26 states. 

Image from Deseret News

To further address and accommodate women of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, CVS is upgrading their MinuteClinic to now have women’s health services such as menstrual consultations. The clinic will also offer virtual sessions available seven days a week to address general medical concerns and female health assessments. Overall, CVS is conducting big initiatives to destigmatize menstruation and reduce health inequity among period care. 

Along with CVS, menstrual hygiene product brand, Kotex, has been launching a menstrual education program in schools to promote a more positive depiction of menstruation. Whilst creating quality feminine care products that meet many women’s expectations, Kotex is taking their company one step further by collaborating with schools in Hong Kong. “We believe that girlhood should not be restricted by social expectations, girls are empowered to grow up with full possibilities rather than any fixed destination, in the spirit of Kotex “Period or Not, SHE CAN” [sic], said Stella Chun, General Manager of Kimberly-Clark Hong Kong. This program features interactive videos, advice from professionals such as nurses, and a care package including menstrual products and an education pamphlet. The company has reached out to 550 schools and will pledge to educate a total of 45,000 girls throughout the school year about menstruation, truly embracing the spirit of their campaign #SHECAN. 

With large companies such as CVS and Kotex creating initiatives to eliminate menstrual stigma, there is a large momentum created to mitigate gender stereotypes and allow for girls to embrace their uniqueness and experience regarding puberty untainted from a negative gaze. With promises of offering thorough and sufficient female health education and female health care in clinics, there is hope that women’s holistic health will be more prioritized to alleviate the issues of period poverty and gender inequity overall. 

Period poverty is a very undermined issue that needs to be addressed since its associated shame and stigma affects girls in schools, which will in turn affect these girls as they turn into adolescents and also adults. Not only does period poverty and menstrual stigma affect women’s physical health but it causes detrimental effects on their mental health and wellbeing. However, with the help of larger corporations, citizens, and governmental figures, systemic solutions can be enacted to end this ignorance and poverty. 

Image from UPenn School of Nursing

Edited by Amna Hassan

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