12 January 2022
The Cost of a Period: The SDGs and Period Poverty
story highlights

Ontario will be the fourth province in Canada to take action against period poverty by introducing free period products in schools.

In 2021, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for anyone who needs them, and numerous developed and developing countries have eliminated the tax on period products.

These include Canada, Australia, Kenya, India, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Tanzania, Lebanon, Malaysia, Colombia, South Africa, Namibia, and Rwanda.

By Rachel Wilson, creative communications student

In October 2021, the government of Ontario, Canada announced plans to distribute six million free period products annually to school boards across its region to help eliminate youth period poverty. Period poverty is the lack of access to menstrual and sanitary supplies, menstrual hygiene education, and waste management.

Private retail pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart will supply the menstrual products for the next three years to the provincial government, which governs approximately 14 million people—including roughly two million students in public elementary and secondary schools. This will make Ontario the fourth province in Canada to take action against period poverty and its effects on education. British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island also have introduced free period products in all public school washrooms.

Eliminating the “tampon tax” is a step more governments can afford to take immediately.

The deprivations associated with period poverty connect strongly to the SDGs, including SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), and SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation).

The Cost of a Period

Lack of access to period products can occur due to financial and physical barriers. Prices of period products can put these vital supplies out of reach for many people in both developing and developed countries. For example, while the Canadian government eliminated taxes on menstruation products and supplies in 2015, a survey conducted for Plan International Canada in 2019 still found “over one in two Canadian girls and women report they have occasionally had to miss out on an activity because of their period and concerns about a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products.”

In a developed country like Canada, women can spend up to CAD 6,000 on menstrual supplies in their lifetime. This cost can double to CAD 12,000 for people living in rural communities. A CAD 10 pack of sanitary pads can cost CAD 17 in First Nations and Indigenous communities. Overall, one in three Canadian women under 25 struggle to afford period products.

People in vulnerable situations are affected most by period poverty, including people already facing homelessness, low income, and systemic exclusion for being members of marginalized groups. Folks in vulnerable situations may need to sacrifice meager food budgets or cope with negative health issues due to a lack of accessible period products and sanitary facilities. This introduces links to another SDG – Goal 10 on reducing inequalities.

Those physical health risks can increase when safe sanitation facilities, such as toilets and handwashing areas, are difficult to access or non-existent—another complication more likely to be faced by the poor or marginalized. These facilities are still too rare across the world: around 2.8 billion people do not have access to safe sanitation services, and 1.9 billion lack basic handwashing facilities. People who menstruate may be forced to use inadequate materials to build makeshift products or use period products for a prolonged time—in both cases, increasing the chance of reproductive and urinary tract infections among other harmful outcomes.

Period Poverty Around the World

Period poverty affects a minimum of 500 million people every month. For example, of India’s 355 million people who menstruate, 12% cannot afford period products.

People in developed and developing countries also face period poverty due to social and cultural stigmas, misinformation, and gender discrimination around periods. Right now, 800 million people around the world are menstruating, with many trying to hide the evidence of bleeding or struggling to find sanitary supplies. Secrecy, shame, and stigma burden people who menstruate. For example:

  • In Nepal, women are banished to huts during menstruation because the community perceives them as “impure.”
  • Seventy percent of girls in Uganda fear menstrual-related accidents and feel shame around their period.
  • Fifty percent of girls in the UK said they feel shame around their period.
  • In Ontario, Canada, 41% of girls said friends, colleagues, and relatives have teased them about being on their period. 

One pressing issue associated with period poverty is access to education. In India, around 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to the lack of safe and sanitary menstrual hygiene management—including access to products and lack of awareness about menstruation. On the other side of the planet, 70% of Canadian women say they’ve missed school or work because of their period. This barrier to a quality education can have compound impacts for girls, who face more challenges than boys in finding jobs that can provide a route to escaping poverty.

COVID-19 has made it even harder to manage a period amid poverty or other deprivations. Inequality issues have climbed during the pandemic. In 2020, there was an increase in violence against women and girls, a worsened plight of slum dwellers, and the loss of 8.8%of global working hours which disproportionately hit young people and women.

The Action Needed to End Period Poverty

To decrease period poverty, menstrual products need to be made more affordable and accessible. Menstrual hygiene and education also need to be taken more seriously by governments, decision makers, and educators. Global sanitization and menstrual awareness need to improve overall.

In 2021, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for anyone who needs them. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill passed unanimously and became an Act on 12 January 2021. Under this Bill:

  • The Scottish Government must create a system to allow free period products for anyone who needs them.
  • All schools, colleges, and universities must have a range of period products available for free in their washrooms.
  • The Scottish Government has the power to mandate any public body to provide free period products.

Ideally, period products should be free for everyone in all spaces. Eliminating a tax on period products, commonly referred to as “tampon tax,” is a medial step more governments can afford to take immediately. In the United States, 30 of the 50 states still tax period products. Both developed and developing countries have shown it is possible to eliminate this biased tax, including Canada, Australia, Kenya, India, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Tanzania, Lebanon, Malaysia, Colombia, South Africa, Namibia, and Rwanda.

Finally, our understanding of menstruation needs to evolve if we are to meaningfully address this gap. Period poverty and menstruation are not just a woman’s rights issue. Women, non-binary, trans men, and other gender-diverse folks can experience menstruation, and not all women menstruate. A lot of research continues to focus solely on women and girls. It is important to de-gender the language we use around periods and menstruation. Using the term “people who menstruate” is one way to make periods more inclusive.

Rachel Wilson is a Red River College Creative Communications student in Winnipeg, Canada.

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