On the plight of period poverty among women and girls

My teenage sister shared a story with me recently of how her friend and classmate, Mercy, is faced with the challenge of missing classes at least thrice monthly to escape derision from her male classmates during her menstrual cycle. It is the case that due to heavy flows in the first three days, the cloths she uses as pad always shift from where she stuffed them, staining her uniform, thereby attracting scoffs from the boys in her class. Though sad, it’s the reality of many Nigerian girls whose families cannot afford to buy them sanitary pads to use during menstruation.

Of course, hearing that a young girl doesn’t have money for these products and skips school every month when she gets her period was heartbreaking. Yet, period poverty is a global issue affecting women and girls who don’t have access to safe, hygienic sanitary products, and or who are unable to manage their periods with dignity, sometimes and often due to community stigma, superstitious or religious dogma around menstruation. It doesn’t just refer to those who have no access to sanitary products – in some cases, women and girls have limited access, leading to prolonged use of the same tampons or pads, which can cause infection.

Approximately 800 million women and girls are on their periods daily,  yet one-third of this population do not have access to clean water, female-friendly, decent and private toilets, hygiene facilities and sanitary materials to manage menstruation. According to reports by ActionAid, one in four women in their menstruating years’ experience ‘period poverty,’ from the inability to purchase the products they need, to  inability to be at work or school because of it.  To be sure, one in ten girls have found themselves unable to afford sanitary products, one in seven girls (14%) have had to ask to borrow a sanitary product from a friend and more than one in ten girls (12%) have had to improvise a sanitary product.

In trruth, the cost of purchasing sanitary products every month is a significant hurdle for many women across both high and low-resource settings. In Nigeria for instance, majority are living in abject poverty, as they strive to eat, find shelter and live a healthy life. The dwindling economy has further made dire the crisis, and as most families struggle to make ends meet, sanitary pads and other sanitary products are not likely to be considered as important and essential or necessary commodities, thus, leaving the teeming women and girls in the mensturating ages alone with their crosses to bear. Even so, period poverty is often worsened by the stigma that still surrounds menstruation in many communities, making it difficult to practise optimal hygiene, with such situation carrying the risk of the systematic exclusion of girls and women from life-changing opportunities such as education. As a matter of fact, research has it that more than 90,000 girls stay away from school because they cannot afford pads or tampons.

Nigeria is already threatened with low girl child education. This was validated in a report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) that 40 per cent of Nigerian children do not attend school with the northern region recording the lowest school attendance rate in the country, particularly for the girl child. Other researches have shown that when girls could not access sanitary products, they overwhlemingly resort to staying out of school.  Apart from the girl child education, the health and general well-being of a girl with poor access to sanitary pad is also at risk. Indeed, a United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) supported report has revealed that when girls lack access to sanitary materials, they are more likely to suffer from health issues such as vaginal and urinary infections.

Nonetheless and perhaps mercifully, we’ve overtime witnessed protests across the world that highlight the urgent need to bring an end to period poverty, and to make sure every girl has access to the sanitary products she needs to manage her period each month. As a result, some nations have passed laws mandating schools to provide period products to students, deeming them as essential as toilet paper, but more work needs to be done in this regard, especially in developing countries.

In advancing the cause of effectively overcoming the deleterious effect of period poverty, the first step would be to normalize menstruation and destroy taboos around this  normal natural process. Then policies must be introduced and enforced to make menstrual products, sanitation and hygiene easily accessible. The government as well as other appropriate authorities and structures in the society need to as a matter of urgency, unlock the potential of women and girls by increasing access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene in homes, communities, schools, public places and healthcare facilities. Educating girls and boys on menstruation at an early age at home and school would also help to promote healthy habits and break stigmas around the natural process.

In the final analysis, both beyond and within Nigeria, the challenges confronting women and girls in purchasing period products remain substantial. The average woman spends more than $9 per month on period products. Yet, we know that women and girls have borne the highest brunt of the current coronavirus pandemic in the world in so many ways, from job loss to food insecurity. When we couple the coronavirus privations women and girls are facing with menstrual inequities, it makes having their period that much harder to manage month after month. And this is the truth of the dark reality facing women and girls all over the world, it’s like a bloody slap in the face for them. The world therefore has to come to the realisation that no woman or girl should be held back because of her period much as no girl should go without sanitary wear because she can’t afford it or is too embarrassed to ask. This is the responsibility we all owe women and girls to overcome the plight and limitation of period poverty as it – period poverty – diminishes us all.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Mass Communication, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria.


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