Period Poverty Is An Urgent Public Health And Human Rights Issue

The lack of access to menstrual products and resources, known as period poverty, is more than just a women’s issue. GlobalGiving Community Voices Fellow Sia Fred Towo says addressing it is crucial for a flourishing, equitable society.


Why does period poverty matter? Or has it ever occurred to you why period poverty matters? If you were to ask me why it matters, I would say period poverty has different forms like any other kind of poverty, and it can lead to emotional, physical, and mental effects on individuals. Almost half of the world’s population menstruates.

But period poverty has not been given the urgency it deserves compared to other public health issues like HIV, Ebola, and malaria. Period poverty is an equally important public health issue because lack of information and access to menstrual products negatively impacts women and girls, harming their mental well-being and self-esteem, and even leading to thoughts of self-harm.

Did you know that some women say they wish they were born a different sex to save them from menstruating?

Growing up in a patriarchal family with five brothers and a shy mother added to the challenges I faced. My mother lacked knowledge about the menarche stage and how to provide support, making it difficult for me to express myself. Society’s perception that menstruation is solely a girl’s responsibility further limited my ability to seek help during my period.

Menstruation is a gendered, cross-cutting issue. It affects half of the global population. In Tanzania alone, it impacts up to 19 million women and girls. Factors such as socioeconomic status, culture, social support, and access to necessary resources (like water, soap, bathroom facilities, period products, and pain medications) affect how people experience menstruation. For rural, marginalized, and low-income communities, periods make existing issues worse.

Adults in Tanzania report spending approximately $1.85 per period for disposable pads, which is unaffordable. According to UNESCO statistics, more than 71.4% of women turn to unhygienic alternatives from fabrics to mattress stuffing, dried grass, or cow dung wrapped in gauze. This cost remains similar even in rural areas, where the availability of commercial products becomes an additional burden.

In Haley Johnson’s article on understanding and debunking menstrual taboo in India, she wrote: “There are many taboos surrounding menstruation not only in India but worldwide, and these taboos prevent women/girls from following their normal routine, and it is even taboo to discuss menstruation because ‘to do so may bring shame or dirty’ which further leads to lack of information and understanding. Clearly, this lack of information creates a lack of proper menstrual management which has a long-lasting physical and mental impact on girls and women.”

There is so much that resonates from the article with the situation in East Africa in terms of how the issue has been perceived. This alludes to the separation of the issues by gender, which causes physical and mental challenges for women and girls. There is unfair treatment toward girls, especially those who are of menarche age, combined with poor knowledge of self-hygiene when menstruating, harassment, and bullying from peers. These are some of the most prevalent ways that menstruation affects a girl’s self-esteem.

It is humiliating to be teased just because you are bleeding or because of something so natural and biological that is totally out of your control.

According to Haley Johnson’s article, “there is also a number of women/girls evidently complaining about how most of the menstruation physical symptoms like severe cramps and other period abnormalities aren’t taken seriously by either family members or even health professionals.” She went on to say, “Essentially menstruating women in India are treated like they have some sort of plague, and they are reduced to outcasts even while they are in their own home.”

Here are some significant reasons why addressing period poverty is urgently needed:

  • Health management: Lack of access to menstrual health products and knowledge can lead to unhygienic practices during menstruation. Insufficient menstrual health management can cause discomfort and embarrassment for individuals who cannot manage their periods properly. It can also increase the risks of infections, including urinary tract infections (UTI) and reproductive tract infections.
  • Human rights and gender equality: Menstruation is a natural biological process experienced by approximately half of the world’s population. Denying individuals access to adequate menstrual products and related health care services is a violation of their human rights, including the rights to health, dignity, and equality. Addressing period poverty is crucial for promoting gender equality and ensuring that everyone can live a life free from discrimination and stigma.

It is not enough to speak up about period poverty as an individual or a small group. This is where organizations like Femme International come in. As a menstrual, sexual, and reproductive health nonprofit, Femme International’s mission has been to address the issue through education, engaging communities in conversation, improving access to reusable menstrual products, and conducting research. We are breaking taboos and barriers and addressing the unique needs of menstruators in under-resourced communities. For nearly a decade, we have been working in East Africa—in Kenya and Tanzania—to implement our programs and evaluate their impact. We have reached more than 18,000 people, including women, girls, boys, and men.

Improving menstrual health is challenging. It is not just a matter of ensuring access to menstrual products but also relies on individuals having the resources they need to participate fully in all spheres of life during their monthly cycle. Those resources might include information, sanitation facilities, and supportive environments with sensitized parents and guardians, teachers, and work supervisors. Accessible health care workers trained in menstrual health disorders are also essential resources.

There is a need to create a more collective, intentional effort to bridge the gap in addressing menstrual-related needs. That can contribute to better health, education, livelihoods, socioeconomic possibilities, and opportunities to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and respect human rights. To combat period poverty and move society forward, we need to address the social stigma surrounding this natural bodily occurrence and support the millions of people who experience it every day.

Sia is the Tanzania Country Manager of Femme International. Support her work to break down the global menstrual taboo.


About Community Voices:

GlobalGiving’s Community Voices fellowship aims to elevate and amplify the ideas of nonprofit partners in the GlobalGiving community. Six change leaders from Afghanistan, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Tanzania share their perspectives on challenges affecting our world and the solutions that exist in their communities. Each leader has embarked upon the eight-month fellowship with support from GlobalGiving and The OpEd Project to elevate their underheard, yet vitally important, viewpoints. Read more from Community Voices Fellows.

Featured Photo: Menstrual Health for 5000 Girls in East Africa by Femme International

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