They Go Hand In Hand: Menstrual Products, Women’s Health, And Inequality 0 308

26% of the global population comprises of women of reproductive age, of which at least 500 million young girls (1) and nearly 1.2 billion women globally (2) lack access to menstrual hygiene facilities including inadequate water and sanitation and a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. 56% of girls, in and out of school, do not receive any menstrual health education (3), 28% of girls in India and 30% in Pakistan are out of school because of lack of access to menstrual health products (4). This and countless other statistics paint the horror story that millions of women globally face, every month. While I was surprised, saddened, and angered by these numbers, they are indicative of an extreme lack of empathy as women’s menstrual hygiene issues are constantly being hushed, going unnoticed and ignored.

Capitalism has ensured that today there is a wide variety of menstrual hygiene products in all colors, packaging, and sizes and the women running around all dressed in white during their periods in their ad campaigns almost make you feel like ‘that time of the month’ is an absolute joy for every woman and all our menstrual problems have been solved. I can not stress how much I wish even a part of that was true. The reality is that there still huge obstacles standing in the way of women and menstrual products including tampon tax, period poverty, and social stigmas and taboos.

What is the tampon tax? Tampons and other sanitary products are still taxed under ‘luxury goods’ around most of the world, which makes access to them a lot more difficult than it already is. This contributes to the concept of ‘period poverty’. The problem gets more complicated here, women in several developing countries don’t just suffer because of global income inequality but also because of the gender pay gap; whenever things are bad for people, they are almost always worse for women. According to an estimate, a mere 12% of women in India can afford sanitary protection while 50% of school-age girls in Kenya do not have access to these products. Similarly, women in prisons have it worse. While access to menstrual products is considered a basic human right in  European prisons, countries like the US and UK are still far behind where women in prisons are either humiliated each month, forced to pay for menstrual products or those provided are of poor quality. (5)

So, why is this problem so persistent? A short answer: lawmakers and statesmen hardly care about women. But a more accurate answer is also more complicated and demands a discussion about topics a large part of the world still considers taboo. There is a ‘cycle of neglect’ (6) surrounding menstrual health and products. Policies, such those regarding subsidies and taxation, often exclude women while at home they often have little control or anatomy excluding women entirely from the decision-making process. Now, this is not to question the credibility of statesmen themselves rather their complete unfamiliarity with these issues. While a lack of empathy is one of the crucial factors here, men, like women, despite having greater access to education live in the same cycles of social stigmas and a flawed education system that then produces leaders that are more prepared to go to war than reduces taxes on products that are fundamental and basic rights. The education that slightly limits men, binds women completely which is made worse by a lack of social support. Girls grow up with little or no knowledge about menstruation let alone the most effective products and the social conditioning, across most cultures, prevents them from discussing these issues openly or even ask questions.

What are the consequences of this inequality? Serious health and hygiene concerns, contraction of deadly diseases, girls out of school and women being stripped of basic dignity. The very idea behind the universality of human rights and its conception from inherent human morality comes from dignity, that each human being, just by virtue of being human, deserves dignity. So why is half of the world still so persistent in not giving a dignified living to the other half, 52% to be exact? The answer is an amalgamation of every issue discussed here and more. The cycle of oppression and inequality is highly self-sustaining and is constantly being reinforced as more girls are out of school. But because they are out of school and not constantly being told that access to menstrual health products is a fundamental right, the culture of silence is thriving.

However, things are not as grim as they were a few years ago. In 2011, South Africa’s then-President Jacob Zuma highlighted the need for providing safe sanitary products to indigenous women in his State of the Nation address (7).  Very recently, two countries: Malaysia and India said they will be removing the additional tax on Menstrual products while petitions and movements across the world are asking not only for the abolition of this tax but also of the social taboos surrounding it. Of course, while all this change is welcomed, it is not enough. The problems are far from over and the solutions must begin from education and awareness. I can only ask for my rights if I know what they are, at the same time, I can only learn about them from home, school or my surroundings as most girls do. Thus, policies surrounding menstrual health education must be recognized as health issues and not something that women are shamed for. Furthermore, civil societies are one of the main non-state actors that can be expected to drive social change and put pressure on governments to reform policy, however their access and reach is still relatively limited and one of the main reasons for that is the long list of issues where sanitary products fall quite low in terms of priority.

Not entirely unexpected, countries where unemployment and dependency ratios are high and living conditions low, politicians win support and NGOs funding by speaking of infrastructure, corruption, creating jobs and of course, protecting borders from perceived threats. In all this noise, women’s issues tend to get lost or are even scoffed at. While economic progress and development and greater security and stability will create long-term gains for women too, the trickle down might take too long and so the dialogue is required today and aggressively. More women must be members of Parliaments, the Senate, ministers, policy-makers, educators at the same time current obstacles to menstrual health products such as cost and accessibility must be dismantled. The processes of change must be concurrent and equal across the globe.

 

  1. Menstrual Hygiene Management Enables Women and Girls to Reach Their Full Potential (may 25, 2018). The World Bank. Retrieved from
    https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2018/05/25/menstrual-hygiene-management
  2. Rhona Scullion, Period Poverty is a Reality for Million of Women (Dec 2, 2017). Medium. Retrieved from
    https://medium.com/@PassBlue2016/period-poverty-is-a-reality-for-millions-of-women-c4d3ab3d6bad
  3. Unicef 2012: menstrual hygiene – manage it well; Menstrualhygieneday.org
  4. Ibid.
  5. Erin Polka, The Monthly Shaming of Women in State Prisons (September 4, 2018). Public Health Post. Retrieved from
    https://www.publichealthpost.org/news/sanitary-products-women-state-prisons/
  6. House, Sarah, Theresa Mahon, and Sue Cavill. “Menstrual Hygiene Matters: A Resource for Improving Menstrual Hygiene around the World.” Reproductive Health Matters 21, no. 41 (May 2013): 257-59. doi:10.1016/S0968-8080(13)41712-3.
  7. Spotlight on SA women’s menstruation plight-but still not enough being done (May 29, 2018). Health 24. Retrieved from:
    https://www.health24.com/Lifestyle/Woman/Menstruation/spotlight-on-sa-womens-menstruation-plight-but-still-not-enough-being-done-20180528\

 

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I'm a 22 years-old aspiring writer/political scientist/cat-lady currently studying International Relations in KL, Malaysia. I'm a proud feminist (and Womanist) surviving on coffee and the pent up anger and suffering of my female ancestors.

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