Period Poverty: Menstrual Rights are Human Rights
May 27, 2022
By: Zoë Levi
Period poverty is experienced through the struggle that many menstruators face while trying to access menstrual products . It is important to acknowledge that not all who menstruate are women and not all women menstruate; discussions of period poverty must go beyond the two gender binary. Period poverty can result from economic vulnerability, a lack of awareness, and poor hygiene standards . This is a global human rights issue faced by menstruators around the world. Focusing specifically on India, many menstruators living in rural areas experience period poverty which is a serious risk to their health, employment, and education , . Many menstruators use unsafe alternatives such as rags, hay, sand, and ash which can lead to infections , . Many young menstruators in India also miss school or drop out entirely as a result of period poverty . Period poverty is a significant issue that impacts the human rights and the dignity of millions of menstruators and must be addressed. Inadequate access to menstrual products, sanitary facilities, and education surrounding menstrual hygiene are serious barriers that must be overcome in achieving menstrual equity .
Period poverty results from a number of factors that interact with each other including, lack of awareness and understanding of menstruation, poor hygiene standards, and shame , . Menstruation is often considered to be a shameful, secret, and taboo topic in India ,  which prevents education and understanding for young menstruators. Research indicates that 71% of young menstruators do not have knowledge of menstrual health until after their first period . During menstruation, menstruators are considered to be ‘dirty’ and are separated at home from cooking, dining, and praying, and in public at school, social events, and places of worship , , . These barriers prevent menstruators from living a life that promotes dignity for themselves and those around them . These attitudes can make menstruators feel ostracized and shameful which continues to silence the discussion .
Period poverty also has a detrimental impact on the education of menstruators. Research has found that 1 out of 5 students in rural India drop out once menstruation begins . Over 40% of those who menstruate in India do not attend school during their cycle, citing inaccessibility to menstrual products along with the social stigma faced during menstruation . Many schools also lack appropriate sanitation facilities which worsens the situation for young menstruators . For many young menstruators, missing school while menstruating has become a norm . Barriers to creating a safe and hygienic environment for menstrual practices within schools include a lack of water, sanitation, disposal facilities, and privacy . Separate toilets for female students were present in only half of the schools included in research . As more people who menstruate enroll in secondary and post-secondary education, the need for comprehensive approaches to menstrual hygiene to prevent absenteeism and dropouts is critical .
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the universal right to education. It states that everyone has the right to education and that education directs the full development of human personality and strengthens the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms . Period poverty infringes upon this right; it prevents many young menstruators from exercising their human right to education. Governments should be taking action to limit young people from dropping out of school and absenteeism due to a remediable issue. There ought to be funding and greater access to menstrual necessities and appropriate sanitation facilities within schools. These changes can eliminate a barrier that many young menstruators face when trying to access education. Access to quality education opens up many opportunities and resources that can help individuals leave the cycle of poverty , which is what makes education exceptionally important. Additionally, when gender inequality is addressed in the classroom it positively affects the way women are treated in their communities , which can contribute to eliminating the stigma surrounding menstruation.
Period poverty also greatly impacts the health of young menstruators–as mentioned, many who do not have access to menstrual products use unsafe alternatives which can lead to infection and disease , . Period poverty has been shown to be a major cause of increased illness and death among menstruators in India . Infections like UTIs and others are caused by limited access to menstrual products, lack of medical care, and poor menstrual hygiene, all of which can lead to fatality .
Additionally, period poverty and stigma impact the mental health of menstruators, especially those who are adolescents , . Stigma contributes to the disempowerment of young menstruators who feel shame and discomfort around their biological processes . This has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which only intensified period poverty in India . School shutdowns created a barrier to free menstrual products available in some schools, supply chain disruptions affected organizations that were able to provide menstrual products, and for low-income families who already struggle to afford groceries, menstrual products are not considered essential . Menstrual hygiene products have been taxed at 12% since 2017  which creates additional barriers to access. Stories of young menstruators during lockdown further illuminated the struggles to obtain menstrual products. As many found themselves isolated at home with the men in their family who were designated to leave the home to shop for the whole family making it difficult to ask for menstrual products . This led young menstruators to feel more shame and embarrassment about their cycles in addition to unsafe alternatives which contributed to worsening mental and physical health , .
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights indicates the right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being . This human right is also infringed upon by period poverty, however, it is important to note that period poverty is not the only form of poverty that impacts this human right. As millions of people in India and around the world are unable to exercise this right because of extreme poverty. Eliminating period poverty is a step forward to achieving the human right to health and well-being for all who menstruate.
Period poverty is an issue that has a large impact on the health and human rights of menstruators in India, but important positive action is being taken to address it. The Desai Foundation helps people in the U.S. and India through over 25 programs addressing issues like period poverty . The Desai Foundation works to uplift “women and children through community programming to elevate health and livelihood” in more than 568 villages . They also established the Asani Sanitary Napkin Program which teaches local women to produce and distribute quality period pads . In 2018, India abolished the luxury tax on menstrual products making them tax-free products , . These steps shine a light on the movement to improve the health and human rights of menstruators affected by period poverty in India.
While people who live in low-income countries face disproportionately high rates of period poverty, it is still a human rights violation experienced across the globe and in our own backyards. It is important to work towards menstrual equality for all and protect menstruators’ health and human rights through collective action. While many amazing initiatives have taken root, more must be demanded of our governments to abolish period poverty and make menstrual health, hygiene, and products attainable and accessible for all menstruators.
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