Health and Healthcare

The unsanitary truth about period poverty – and what governments can do

A group of children holding blue UNICEF bags in a protest about period poverty

Governments are increasingly taking action to tackle period poverty and pain - but more can be done. Image: UNICEF/South Sudan/2018/Chol

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Health and Healthcare

  • Gender inequality, discrimination, stigma and lack of basic services like toilets and sanitary products affect millions of people each day, UNICEF says.
  • In some parts of the world, eating certain foods, socializing and going to school are forbidden during menstruation.
  • Governments are increasingly taking action to tackle period poverty and pain - but more can be done.

Millions of people around the world struggle to manage menstrual health, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

Gender inequality, discrimination and lack of basic services like toilets and sanitary products are some of the reasons.

In many parts of the world, eating certain foods, socializing and going to school are forbidden activities if you are having your period, the UN says.

Now governments are increasingly taking action to support the 800 million people a day who are menstruating. Here are some examples.

Spain reforms women’s health

In Spain, women suffering severe period pain will be allowed to take between three and five days off a month under a planned new law, according to a BBC news report.

The move is part of wider reforms to reproductive health legislation and, if passed, will be the first law of its kind in Europe.

Scotland pioneers free sanitary products

In 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to offer free sanitary products to all women.

A new policy passed by the Scottish Government makes tampons and sanitary pads freely available at designated public places like community centres, pharmacies and youth clubs.

New Zealand bids to end period poverty

New Zealand’s government announced last year that its schools would have free access to sanitary products from June 2021, to help end period poverty.

The announcement followed a pilot programme providing about 3,200 young people in 15 schools with free period products.

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France offers free sanitary products in schools

In France, the government is investing €1 million in the roll-out of free period products to schools, according to the poverty action site, Global Citizen.

Period poverty affects 1.7 million women in France, a survey by the French Institute for Public Opinion has found.

Kenya’s tax cut to sanitary imports

In Kenya, unaffordable sanitary products, stigmatization and poor sanitation are some of the problems linked to menstruation, according to Borgen, a US global poverty campaign group. Those in remote and low-income areas are worst affected.

The government has taken steps to change this. In 2004, Kenya became the first country in the world to remove taxes on imports of sanitary products.

South Africa removes ‘tampon tax’

South Africa committed to providing free sanitary products in schools in 2019, after a campaign by action group Global Citizen.

The government also ended taxes on period products, known as the ‘tampon tax’.

Botswana gets girls back to school

Botswana’s government voted to offer free sanitary pads to schoolgirls in 2017, according to news site Africa News.

This aimed to tackle the problem of girls missing out on school during their period because they couldn’t afford sanitary products, hurting their academic performance as a result.

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Seoul offers free sanitary products

South Korea’s capital city Seoul launched a pilot programme in 2018 to offer free sanitary products for women in 10 public facilities, the Korea Herald reported.

These include Seoul Museum of Art and the Seoul Museum of History. The move followed a survey of the city’s residents and period poverty campaigns by women’s groups.

Zambia supports girls in rural areas

Zambia announced free sanitary products for girls in rural areas and around the outskirts of urban areas in its 2017 budget, according to advocacy platform Menstrual Hygiene Day.

The initiative aimed to help 14,000 girls in vulnerable homes across 16 districts to stay in school.

Menstrual leave in Southeast Asia

There are now several places in Southeast Asia that offer menstrual leave, according to Indian news site Firstpost.com.

Japan’s legislation has been in place since 1947, while Taiwan’s Gender Equality in Employment Act gives women three days of menstrual leave a year.

Two charts showing sanitation coverage in schools, 2019
Better sanitation facilities in schools would help tackle period poverty in low-income countries. Image: WHO/UNICEF
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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Is it enough?

Advocators around the world agree there is much more to do. The first step is to end the taboos around this natural process and to normalize menstruation, Global Citizen argues. Then policies need to be enforced to make period products, sanitation and hygiene easily accessible.

Educating all children at school about periods can remove the stigma around menstruation and improve young peoples’ education and health. While, in low-income countries, better toilet and sanitation facilities in schools would reduce the problem of girls missing school days, the World Bank says.

Goal 6 of the United Nation's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.

Improving access to sustainable sanitary products that don’t harm the planet is another area of focus.

The benefits for the governments investing in this area, and for us all, include both better health and greater economic potential for women and girls, the World Bank says.

A recent World Economic Forum article highlighted the importance of gender equality in technological development. “We need women - their voices and their needs - reflected in the processes and inputs that build AI-based systems and solutions, so that they can start better serving and responding to half of humanity’s needs and interests,” explained Sunita Grote, who leads the Ventures team within UNICEF’s Office of Innovation.

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Related topics:
Health and HealthcareGender Inequality
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