With free period products being rolled out in schools, colleges and universities across Scotland, LGiU Scotland’s Isla Whateley looks further afield to see what the issues are with having periods on a more global level.
Period poverty has been making the headlines in Britain recently, with Scotland recently announcing that all schools will provide free sanitary products in an attempt to reduce instances of period poverty. But what about having periods in much poorer countries? This blog will examine some of the taboos, traditions and access issues worldwide that make having a period a difficult experience.
In Nepal, there is the practice of Chhaupadi. Directly translating into ‘untouchable being’, women are deemed ‘impure’ during menstruation or just after childbirth, so they are banished to a cattle shed or makeshift hut. The woman or girl is not allowed to enter her house, cook, touch her parents, go to temple or school, or eat anything but salted bread or rice. This practice is loosely linked to the Hindu religion, and a woman who disobeys these rules is believed to bring destruction and death to her family. Nepal’s supreme court outlawed Chhaupadi in 2005, but the practice is still widely observed in the western areas of the country – as many as 95% of girls and women in the western regions practice Chhaupadi. Research by Awon has shown that undergoing Chhaupadi is linked to both psychological and physical illnesses – 77% of people feel humiliated, and two thirds feel lonely and scared. There is a much higher risk of diarrhoea, pneumonia, respiratory illnesses, assault, attack by animals, and high infant and maternal mortality rates (since both mother and baby are banished to the shed after birth). However, it is not easy to try and change such a long-held tradition. Local and international NGOs have been working with communities and villages, and now some villages are Chhaupadi-free zones, while others have bulldozed their Chhaupadi huts to signal an end to the practice.
In China, there is a taboo that tampons break the hymen, making a girl lose her virginity. This means that it is much harder to purchase tampons since they are less readily available; in 2015, there were no tampons manufactured in China but 85 billion pads produced!
In Kenya, more than one million girls miss up to six weeks of school each year because they don’t have reliable access to menstrual products. There is also a lack of sex education, meaning that unwanted pregnancies and STIs are more common, which can impact a girl’s education hugely.
The tampon tax (where sanitary products are classified as a ‘luxury’ item and are therefore not exempt from tax like ‘essential’ items are) is still firmly in place in many countries as well as the UK – although it has been announced that it will be scrapped following Brexit. In India, a 12% tax on pads was introduced in 2017, making them even more inaccessible for women. In the United States, like the UK, the luxury tax makes sanitary products much more expensive and therefore less accessible for those on low incomes and living in poverty.
The campaign against period poverty is gaining momentum in the US and Canada. The most recent Always Confidence and Puberty Survey reveals that nearly one in five American girls and one in seven Canadian girls have either left school early or missed school entirely because they do not have adequate access to period products. They have begun an #EndPeriodPoverty campaign which aims to donate 15 million pads to girls in need, and have partnered with Jane the Virgin actress Gina Rodriguez who has done a lot of work for young disadvantaged women.
It is clear that the fight against period poverty is not just limited to the UK and that it is a worldwide issue especially for those in the global South. Poorer countries do not have the cash to provide free sanitary products to everyone, and there are some damaging traditions surrounding menstruation that need to be tackled in a culturally sensitive manner. However, as Scottish Government spends more money on tackling period poverty, charities working on period poverty may choose to focus on more global solutions, as the demand is reduced at home.