Disclaimer: Before you go on reading this article, I would like to say that the article is limited to period poverty and will not actively engage with the debate of gender identity, though I will try to be as inclusive as possible in my language. Nevertheless, not having your period biologically does not make someone any less a woman.
“I felt embarrassed to be a girl, and felt like it was a punishment.” said a 13-year-old in Kenya to UNFPA, describing the first time she started getting her period.
When I first got my period, I was really excited about it. All my friends had already gotten theirs and I felt like I was being excluded from some kind of mysterious club - being a real woman. A notion I now think of as a little bit strange. Having my period is not making me more or less feminine than others. It does not determine my worth as a girl or woman. It does not tell me anything, except about the health of my reproductive organs. If anything, being on my period has the opposite effect of making me feel feminine. Especially in a society where women’s pain is usually not taken seriously. Lying in bed with cramps is definitely not my definition of fun.
But the difference between a girl in Kenya and me is that while being on my period may feel to me like a punishment at times, hers, in fact, is one. The punishment is not self-imposed or put on her by law, but by the society she lives in and it impacts the reality of her everyday life.
When I am in need of menstrual products, it is easy: I can go to the next supermarket to buy pads, or to one of my university’s bathrooms to grab tampons or pads for free out of a little box installed on the wall - courtesy of a UM-wide project by UM staff members and Feminists of Maastricht. Or I can just ask one of my friends if they could lend me one if we are out together and I don’t have period products on me. I do not feel ashamed for asking or feel ashamed of my body. My education in school was sufficient enough to equip me with knowledge about my bodily functions and how to care for them. I have access to medical care, if something is wrong with my body, if I do not feel well. Moreover, surrounded by various media and growing up ‘online’ (e.g. Youtubers sharing tips and tricks for puberty problems and seeing Instagram campaigns for when you start your period), I can look up any and all questions I have or ask people, like my mother, for help.
In short: I can live my life unhindered by the fact that I am a person who menstruates. Menstruating is only a natural aspect of my body. A phenomenon I share with approximately a quarter of the world’s population.
But, people’s realities can vastly differ from mine. Already just here in the Netherlands, that can be the case. There are many people affected by so-called period poverty. Generally, this describes the lack of access to menstrual products due to financial struggles which can be caused by a variety of reasons.
What does it mean in everyday life? It means people who menstruate and suffer from extreme poverty or humanitarian crises have to make do with old rags, socks or newspaper as a provisory fix to hold the heavier flows of their bleeding. Low-income households just cannot afford the high costs of sanitary products.
Fear and shame of leakings stop menstruating people from attending classes in school or university, which prevents them from getting the education they need and deserve. Or it stops them from going to work, continuing the cycle of poverty that they cannot escape. As a 17-year old in Uganda describes: “I used to miss one week of school every month”. Choosing between education and hygienic products, as well as choosing between food or no food, should not be a decision people who menstruate must make monthly. Having your period should never equate to less chances in your life.
Furthermore, there is a big stigma surrounding periods. This stigma is expressed by excluding people who currently are on their periods from public spaces, or even their own home, because they are considered disgusting or impure in their culture or, for instance, religious community. Chhaupadi, a Nepalese tradition, describes just that: the banishment of menstruating people to sheds outside of the house. Having menstruating people in the house is believed to be bad luck and could bring ill health as well, which is, of course, nonsense. The tradition has been officially banned but it is still practiced in the rural areas of Nepal.
In the face of such period stigma the human dignity of menstruating people is disregarded: there is no respect for them as people - and harmful traditions, social isolation and misinformation regarding periods all contribute towards this issue.
Being treated as less than a human being for your body functions weighs like a heavy burden on the minds of affected people. Internalised feelings of shame and disgust, a low self-esteem and anxiety are therefore common side effects caused by stigmatized treatment.
These mental issues in addition to physical problems like vaginal infections cannot be treated due to lack of access to medical care. Another common issue which is difficult to treat is e.g. endometriosis, a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside of it in the body causing severe period cramps among other symptoms. But saying people have painful cramps does not give justice to the huge consequences of endometriosis at all. Even with access to great healthcare and medication, e.g. strong painkillers, the affected are suffering from this chronic illness: having to stay in, vomiting from excruciating pain and nausea, being in simple terms unable to continue with their everyday life. People with endometriosis and similar illnesses are thought to exaggerate their pains, in general people often do not recognize period cramps as a valid reason to miss school or work. If this is the situation in countries like the Netherlands, imagine how the situation is in countries with expensive or less accessible healthcare?
Missing support systems for menstruating people in which they could ask for help further prevents them from getting the resources they need to be healthy. On top of that, lack of proper sanitary products often comes alongside a lack or minimal access to clean water, sanitation and, not less importantly, the privacy to safely clean oneself and change used clothing. Hygiene is needed for the body and the mind. I know firsthand how important it is for me to shower each day when I am menstruating, not only to be clean but to feel clean.
Hopefully you recognize it now? There are many basic human rights interconnected with menstruation you would not immediately think of: the right to education when students are too ashamed to go to school, the right to work when the pain of cramps is too debilitating, the right to water and sanitation which is needed to have hygiene and privacy when menstruating. The UN has formulated 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to tackle some of the problems I mentioned. SDG 6 for example is the goal to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. A lot of factors play a role in providing a safe space for menstruating people, so they can live their lives without having to - at the very least - worry about their period.
I won’t miss my classes while I am on my period, I won’t be judged for openly talking about it in public and I won’t feel shame in going outside because I have access to period products. This is a privilege - one I was not aware of until a short while ago. It should not be one.
Realizing this privilege made me dig deeper into the topic, but awareness of the issue is only the first step: the goal is to make period products widely and freely accessible to everyone.
A good example of change is Scotland, where we see how period poverty and the stigma surrounding it can be reduced. Last year, as the first country in the world, Scotland made hygiene products like tampons and pads freely available in all public buildings. The ‘Period Products Act’ ensures that those who menstruate have easy access to period products, free of charge. There is now a legal duty for local authorities and education providers like schools to offer the products. Think about the UM-wide project I mentioned above, with the difference that the project at UM is done on a voluntary basis and not funded by the government!
Creating a new law is a huge move, but thinking smaller: what more could be done here in Maastricht? Where is change needed the most? What projects already exist? How can you support them? No matter what you do, don’t forget one thing: we have to change society so young people experiencing their periods for the first time do not feel like they have been punished with a restricted future for something outside of their control.