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Period Poverty: Dignity Is the Foundation of All Human Rights

Photo credit: The Kit
December 10, 2019

Today, on Human Rights Day, we commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a milestone document proclaiming the inalienable rights that everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. 

The theme for this year is: Youth Standing Up for Human Rights. The aim is to celebrate the potential of youth as constructive agents of change, amplify their voices, and engage a broad range of global audiences in the promotion and protection of rights. To that end, we are sharing  this piece from MJ Gauthier, a 2017 Social Connectedness Fellow, which highlights one issue that has limited the potential of far too many young women around the world — period poverty — and is something we must address to ensure that girls and women can exercise their inalienable human rights. 

Around the world, the education of hundreds of millions of girls and women is jeopardized by lack of access to and affordability of menstrual products. Period poverty, as it is commonly referred to, is isolating girls and inhibiting their freedom, opportunities, and futures.

In most of the United States (38 out of 50 states), menstrual products are taxed as luxury products and considered inessential, when in actuality they are fundamental necessities and a basic human need. Across the U.S., 25 million women live without consistent access to menstrual products, impeding the educational progress of one in five girls who have to leave school early or miss entire days. As a result, each of those girls ends up approximately 145 days behind the other students who don’t face the same problem.

In India, it is estimated that one in four girls drops out of school soon after menstruation begins, which is on average, at 12 years old. Being deprived of the means to control the usually painful bleeding is incapacitating. Moreover, the social stigma and shame associated with menstruation leads to increased isolation. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a teacher forced girls to undress to check for menstruation; in the state of Tamil Nadu, a girl committed suicide due to period shaming inflicted by a teacher.  

In South Asia, more than a third of girls miss school during their menstrual cycle due to a dearth of access to toilets and/or products, according to a recent report by WaterAid and UNICEF.

Countries like India, Kenya, Malaysia, Canada and Australia have made a great initial step towards greater affordability by scrapping the tax on menstrual products; however, the cost of sanitary products is still iniquitous. Globally, it is estimated that 1.2 billion women cannot afford the products they need.

Currently, at least 300 million girls and women use toilet paper, plastics, socks, shirts, newspapers, shoe insoles, corn husks, sand, and ash as alternatives to the pads or tampons they cannot afford. These methods are not only ineffective and disempowering, but also dangerous due to an increased likelihood of infection. While the menstrual cup offers a more economic alternative to tampons and pads, it requires the means to clean it and can also jeopardize one’s health if not kept sanitary. 

While period poverty continues to oppress women with financial burdens, interrupted education, increased isolation, and health risks, social justice advocates are growing more numerous, innovative and vocal on the matter.

PERIOD is a nonprofit organization that is “fighting to end period poverty and period stigma through service, education and advocacy.” To date, PERIOD has addressed over 850,000 periods through product distribution and registered over 600 campus chapters in all 50 US states and in over 30 countries.

Cora is a menstrual product company that pays the sales taxes on all products they sell, and provides menstrual products to a girl in need for every sale. 

#TheHomelessPeriod is a campaign started in the UK to ensure homeless shelters have menstrual products readily available. Their petition to help homeless people on their period gained enough signatures to be raised in British Parliament.

Beyond non-profit organizations, grassroots initiatives, and businesses using their power to tackle period poverty, in 2018, the Scottish government became the first national government to provide free access to menstrual products in all schools, colleges, universities, and food banks — because they are no less essential than toilet paper. Access to menstrual products is a basic human right for all that is systematically neglected, partially because legislators are disproportionately men. More governments should follow Scotland’s lead, and embody the dignity and equity reflected in their policies. 

When girls have access to the menstrual products they need, there is a 90% decrease in school dropout rates. When the dignity of girls is valued by our systems and institutions, girls are more likely to be educated and thrive — benefitting girls, and society as a whole.