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Wednesday, February 20, 2019
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 9 2018 (IPS) - The United Nations Headquarters and Brooklyn Bridge were lit up on Thursday night not to help tourists navigate the major landmarks but to bring attention to a key issue that many women and girls face today: period poverty.
In commemoration of International Women’s Day, the innovative menstruation-proof underwear company THINX shed the light on period poverty and urged world leaders to ensure that menstrual equity exists around the world.
“Today of all days on Women’s Day, we want to come together and light the path forward for greater equality,” Vice President of Brand at THINX Siobhán Lonergan told IPS.
But what is period poverty?
The Poor Have Periods Too
Half of the almost 4 billion women around the world are of reproductive age. For these women and girls, menstruation is a natural monthly reality.
However, millions of poor and marginalized women and girls around the world still lack access to basic sanitary products to help manage menstrual bleeding.
“Period poverty is having access to products that basically allow you human dignity to get up and do what you need to do everyday whether that is go to work or go to school,” Lonergan said.
“If you don’t have access to products for a human bodily function that happens every month, then how can you exist? How can you go about your regular everyday functions?” she continued.
In Bangladesh, many families are unable to afford sanitary pads and instead use rags from old clothing.
In India, only 12 percent of women have access to sanitary products leaving others to use materials from old newspapers to sand.
The use of unsanitary materials often has health implications, including reproductive tract infections and cervical cancer.
Approximately one in 53 Indian women are diagnosed with cervical cancer.
The lack of such hygiene products also affects girls’ attendance and participation in school.
In Nepal, 30 percent of girls report missing school during their periods.
This is partly due to the lack of sanitation facilities at schools such as private toilets and clean water needed for girls to clean and manage their menstruation.
Another significant dimension which keep menstruating girls from school is ongoing cultural taboos.
Menstruation has long been shamed in many communities, including those around South Asia.
Such stigma has put over 100 million adolescent girls between the ages of 12-14 at risk of dropping out of school in India.
In August 2017, a 12-year-old girl in Tamil Nadu committed suicide after a teacher shamed her over a period stain on her uniform.
The stigma arises from customs such as Chhaupadi which banishes girls and women to a hut outside of the main house for the duration of their period
Translating to “untouchable being”, Chhaupadi dictates that she cannot enter her home, cook, touch her parents, and go to school or temple.
The UN has found reports of pneumonia, attacks from wild animals, and rape when women and girls are banished to a shed.
However, if a woman doesn’t follow the rules, she is told that she will bring destruction and misfortune to their family.
Though Chhaupadi was outlawed in Nepal in 2005, the practice is still widely observed across the South Asian region.
Shopna and Monira, 14- and 17-year-olds from Bangladesh, told the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) of the stigmatization of periods in their community including the ideas that monthly periods are shameful and menstrual blood is dangerous.
“We are taught that things will be spoiled if we touch them during our periods…we can’t touch food, cooking utensils or the kitchen gardens,” Shopna said.
“Hindu girls can’t touch cows or even the cow-shed because cows are holy,” Monira added.
They also described the lack of family support as mothers rarely speak to their daughters about their menstruation.
“The topic of periods has never been at the forefront of conversations, it’s always been this thing that has been kind of brushed underground,” Lonergan told IPS.
Lighting the Way Forward
Lonergan highlighted the importance of menstrual care and as it is a health care issue, governments must take action and provide access to affordable hygiene products.
“If we are working towards true gender equality, we must expand access to menstrual products whether that is in public spaces, schools, or in the workplace. It is really imperative that we have policies that ensure menstrual products are safe and available for those who need them,” she said.
At the grassroots level, citizens have already sprung into action to find ways to make such products accessible, including Arunachalam Muruganantham.
Also known as the ‘Pad Man’, Muruganantham set about to create affordable sanitary pads after discovering that his wife had been using dirty rags during her periods.
“When I asked her why, she said we would have to cut half of our milk budget to buy sanitary pads,” he said.
Muruganantham has become a pioneer of menstrual health after successfully developing a machine that produces low-cost sanitary pads and teaching women how to use it.
Media groups like Inter Press Service (IPS) have also conducted workshops for teachers and students about the importance of healthcare and hygiene in Bangladesh.
Lonergan pointed to the need for women and girls to learn about reproductive health and menstruation.
“It starts with education—a basic understanding of what your period is before it happens and then how to actually manage it and then having access to products to get you there,” she said, adding that both boys and girls must be educated about the natural bodily function.
“Without periods, none of us would be born in the first place,” Lonergan concluded.
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