Why We Need to Talk About Period Poverty

Images: Irise International

Lizzie Goolden is a member of Irise International’s Advocacy Committee, helping to lead their work to end menstrual stigma in the UK through empowering young people to advocate in their own communities. For the next instalment of our The Circle X Eco-Age Difficult Conversations series, she explores the issue of period poverty in the UK and beyond, and what we can do about it. 

Period poverty. It’s a term you may have heard the term being thrown around the news, on social media or in the odd conversation. But what does it really mean? 

Period poverty is often misunderstood as simply the lack of affordability of menstrual supplies. While this is a huge part of the issue, period poverty or menstrual health also incorporates the far wider issues of stigma, shame, lack of education and lack of access to both products and information. While menstrual stigma causes women and girls* to internalise feelings of shame, disgust and embarrassment at their own healthy bodies, the lack of access to products and guidance causes girls to drop out of school and to strive for fewer opportunities. 

Surely this is only an issue found in lower-income countries, right? Wrong! Contrary to this common misconception, my research alongside Irise International and the University of Leeds suggested that women and girls’ experiences of menstruation across the globe may have more in common than previously assumed. Having interviewed ‘key informants’ who had either worked or volunteered with women and girls in the UK or Uganda, it soon became clear that there was a stark similarity in the experiences of women and girls in both countries. 

Embarrassment and the intense need to keep their periods secret from others was mentioned time and time again. It’s also clear that the constant worry of leaking into clothing is not simply a worry among girls in the UK but also Uganda and likely further across the globe. 

In the UK, our research found that approximately half of girls feel embarrassed about their period. “I remember I was at school and a male form tutor was teaching us about periods… we were all so embarrassed” explains a UK key informant. Research has evem shown that menstrual taboos lead to women being perceived as less competent and likeable in the workplace if they are known to be menstruating.

Meanwhile in Uganda, 70% of girls are embarrassed and fearful of menstrual related accidents during their periods, and over half are missing some school because of it. A story from one of our Ugandan key informants paints a stark picture of the stigma surrounding the issue: “This was a girl who didn’t know anything, so she stained her dress. It was hard to calm her down; there were a lot of tears and she still had to get through the other days so she spent that week at home. She was thinking there was so much embarrassment.”

Cases of women being unable to afford menstrual products or not having authority within the family unit to use the budget to buy products has also been evident in the UK and Uganda alike. In both countries, women have cited completely inadequate ways to soak up menstrual blood without the use of menstrual products. Slices of bread, cut mattresses, old cloth, leaves, grass, newspaper and dung are all items that poor women have used across both countries.

“A woman was literally down to her last 50p,” a UK participant shares. “She bought a 50p loaf of bread, gave the first half to her kids and the other half she used as sanitary towels. Literally folding up a slice of bread and that was her sanitary towel…that was in [the UK], last year.” And this is far from an isolated case. According to the statistics, a huge 27% of girls in the UK have used a product for longer than intended because they couldn’t afford a fresh one. 

A strikingly similar percentage of girls in Uganda face a similar issue: 30% are using potentially harmful, improvised materials to manage their periods and over half experience health-related symptoms during menstruation. “People cut their bedsheets to make a sanitary towel, or even from a mattress,” a Ugandan key informant shares.

A final connection is the lack of knowledge and misinformation around menstrual hygiene, which is not simply an issue for girls in the UK but girls in Uganda too. In the UK, one in seven girls don’t know what a period is when they start menstruation, and more than a quarter don’t know how to manage them. Again, the numbers in Uganda pair up almost perfectly. 78% of girls lack basic information about their own body and what a period is, and 70% of girls demonstrate attitudes towards menstruation that have the potential to harm themselves or others

There is also culture of misinformation being passed on by mothers, caregives and elders present in both countris, often because they themselves were not given access to adequate information. This perpetuates stigma, taboos and myths as misinformation is not called out and corrected. “Mum never let me wash my hair…and I’ve since asked her why?” reads an anecdote from the UK. “She said, ‘Oh I don’t know but that’s just what my mum told me.’”

“We grow up listening to what the elders tell us,” a Ugandan participant parallels. “We think what they tell us is the truth so when they tell you a menstruating women is dirty you probably believe it because you don’t know if it is true or not because in the end if you don’t understand what the menstrual blood is.”

With this in mind, when we talk about period poverty or menstrual gealth, we are actually talking about the barriers holding girls and women back across the globe. This makes it a fundamental driver of global gender inequality.

Dismantling these menstrual stigmas is essential for improving the lives of women and girls and people who menstruate throughout the world. We need to think holistically about the nature of menstrual concerns, especially the stigma surrounding them, which allows issues to be easily side-lined and overlooked. Promoting a sense of unity and a shared experience among people who menstruate is vital to moving to a world where menstruation is seen as a healthy, natural experience and does not hold anyone back from living life to its fullest.

What can you do? 

Irise International works tirelessly in both the UK and East Africa to tackle these issues. Their vision is a world where everyone can reach their potential, unlimited by their periods. 

The Empower Period Project, funded by the Act for Change fund, has begun online and there’s lots of ways to get involved from home. You can follow our social media and sign up to the advocacy network to make sure you don’t miss out on our upcoming online activities (podcasts, training, live discussions and Q&As), fundraising opportunities and menstrual hygiene day celebrations. My boyfriend and I are also walking/moving as much as we currently can to raise funds the project too, despite our 106km fundraising walk being recently cancelled.

You can also donate to Irise International’s emergency appeal supporting their Ugandan staff and their families during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Note: Within this article I refer to ‘women and girls’ however I understand and fully acknowledge that not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman and not all women menstruate (adapted from Epstein et al., 2017).