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Moving from Period Poverty to Period Positivity

Global advocacy for increased access to menstruation products and facilities exposes social and economic inequities and the need for reform.

The long-term effects of period poverty on women’s lives and livelihoods are dire. A poll of 1,000 UK female youth record three absences per semester due to period challenges. For the same reason, one in every ten schoolgirls in sub-Saharan Africa miss school daily. Girls report being bullied and ridiculed about their period by peers and teachers with serious and sometimes fatal consequences. Students drop out of school or curtail their ambitions due to menstruation inequity. When those in power fail to account for these trends, everyone suffers – girls’ contributions and leadership are necessary to developing just and balanced communities.

The stigma and challenges associated with menstruation destabilize over 800 million people daily. The first step in addressing this issue is increasing access to safe menstruation products. When essential items become unaffordable or unavailable, women use unsafe alternatives including dirty rags, toilet paper, or leaves, which put them at risk of toxic shock syndrome and infection.

Global communities also lack infrastructure to support hygienic practices that promote menstrual comfort and well-being. The World Bank reports that 500 million women do not have access to resources necessary for healthy menstruation habits. The organization documented subpar public facilities without private areas, sanitary disposals, or clean water for washing.

Open discourse on periods can be challenging or nonexistent. Students are often not taught about periods in school, and in many cultural contexts, menstruation is considered an improper and embarrassing topic. With approximately 5,000 euphemisms in colloquial use, there are many ways of avoiding frank conversation about menstruation.

Communities are making progress as they become more aware of the issue. Women can now find affordable period products in places where they weren’t previously available. Scotland distributes tampons to low-income women at no cost. Food banks are following suit with one distributor in the UK even developing Monthlies, bundles of tampons, deodorant, wipes, towels, and chocolate that help with period management and symptoms. Collaborating with The Pad Project, women in Hapur, India use a pad-making machine to distribute durable pads and educate their community. They label their product “Fly” to encourage women’s aspirations. (This initiative is covered by Period. End of Sentence. available on Netflix.)

Influential thought leaders are also bringing attention to this global issue. Michelle Obama emphasized the importance of investing in girls’ education at the World Bank in April 2016.  Meghan Markle wrote a powerful article in Time that exposes how communities and countries fail girls by not starting an open dialogue about menstrual health and hygiene. Clearly, the “period positive” movement is paving the way for a new discourse on menstruation. People in 134 countries celebrated Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, 2019.

As a high school student, Claire Sliney launched her nonprofit, The Pad Project, after attending the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The Pad Project’s mission is to assist individuals affected by the shame and inequities that accompany menstruation. The Center for Global Women’s Health (CGWH) invited Sliney, now a Penn student, to present The Pad Project’s Oscar-winning documentary, Period. End of Sentence., at the School of Nursing to an energized audience of students, faculty, and community members. The event focused attention on the negative impact of period poverty on girls’ education and potential.

Beyond that, student activists and community partners are working on campus with CGWH to raise awareness and support girls and women in the Philadelphia community. And, Penn Nursing just welcomed Caroline Dillon to the freshman class—a young changemaker that helped move SB 142, New Hampshire’s Period Poverty bill forward, ultimately getting it signed into law this summer by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. The next article in this two-part series will focus on period poverty in the U.S. and efforts towards women’s empowerment.


Writer: Amy Smith