Here’s how to end period poverty and free women from stigma

by Dominika Kulczyk | Kulczyk Foundation
Thursday, 15 October 2020 14:29 GMT

Dominika Kulczyk attends a lesson on menstruation in Nepal. Photo supplied by the Kulczyk Foundation

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Global spending on period poverty amounts to less than 20 cents per woman

Dominika Kulczyk is the founder of the Kulczyk Foundation and a journalist and director.

It is no secret that covid-19 has disproportionately affected women. Across the globe, women earn less, save less and hold less secure jobs. The odds are stacked against half the population, and then there is the issue of periods.

Period poverty – whereby people do not have the sufficient resources or knowledge to deal with their periods – is caused by harmful social stigma, a lack of access to toilet facilities, lack of education or not being able to afford tampons and pads.

France has recently announced a programme to introduce free period products in high schools, following similar schemes in New Zealand and the UK. But despite this, period poverty remains a massive problem for women across the globe: worldwide, of the 1.9billion who menstruate, over 500 million lack complete menstrual health and hygiene.

What’s worse, this estimate is based on the number of women who don't have access to sanitation--if we included those who have access to sanitation but can't afford pads, or suffer from harmful social stigma around menstruating, the number would be even higher.  At least quarter of menstruating women and girls are crippled by their natural bodily functions, which they can do nothing about.

The effects of period poverty are crushing. As well as awful health effects, period poverty can ruin girls’ education, destroy women’s ability to work, and create deep feelings of shame and mental distress. I myself remember being ashamed just buying sanitary pads as a young woman.

As a journalist and film director, I have seen the devastating impact of period poverty first-hand. Filming in countries around the world, I’ve even seen women and girls be asked to hide in caves while on their period. As well as obvious abuse, period poverty also lives in plain sight: at home in Poland, a Kulczyk Foundation survey found that 20% of women struggle to afford appropriate sanitary products.

For a challenge that is so large, why is more not being done?

Preventing period poverty is often dealt with through general development programmes on education on sexual and reproductive health and sanitation. Grouping it in this way has led to a void in global coordination and an Everest-sized funding gap.

New research into period poverty has shown us that the upper estimate for total annual spend on period poverty-specific measures is $100million. This is a paltry amount, equating to less than 20¢ per woman. It is a drop in the ocean of total charitable donations — for example, each year over $449.64 billion.

We need a new approach, that focuses on the most impactful organisations who are specifically working towards ending period poverty.

One such organisation, which I have worked with in the past, is Days for Girls. They work in rural Nepal, where up to 80% of girls can think of menstruation as a ‘curse’. As well as product distribution, they are looking to create locally owned supply chains for sanitary products.  Sustainable innovations like these will be key in ending period poverty.

Governments in high-income countries sometimes have schemes to provide free or subsidised sanitary products, but most spending in developing countries comes from bilateral aid, UN agencies, corporate social responsibility programmes and private philanthropists, via organisations like Days for Girls.

With better, cost-effective interventions, global donors and philanthropists will be able to see their resources put to work in the best possible way. But also vital to end period poverty is a new, stronger impetus among philanthropists. I want to free women from the enslavement of these old stigmas, which is why I am joining Founders Pledge and calling for the international community to unite and recognise that period poverty is cannot be neglected any more. Only by coming together with new investment and creating momentum around a movement can we end it once and for all.