Breaking The Hush-Hush About Period Poverty

It’s estimated that any given day, 800 million women around the world are having their period[1].

Most women experience more than 30 years of menstrual bleeding, starting at age 12 and experiencing early menopause at around age 45[2].

While poverty does not discriminate against gender, race or religion, the extra expenditure that comes with being a woman in poverty is quantifiable and evident.

Source: BBC

The ‘time of the month’ comes with essential expenses that are not within a woman’s control. Items such sanitary pads, panty liners, menstrual painkillers, heating pads – the list goes on. 

In an article by Dollars and Sense, it is estimated that a woman spends a whopping SGD $17,556 (MYR $ 53,553) at minimum for sanitary items during her 30 or more years of menstrual cycles[2].

Where’s the problem? 

While most women struggle with some form of discomfort during menstruation, women living in poverty have a lot more to worry about. It’s called ‘Period Poverty’. 

Period poverty describes the struggle many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products. The term also refers to the increased economic vulnerability women and girls face due to the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies. These include not only sanitary napkins and tampons but also related costs such as pain medication and underwear[3].

Source: BBC

The problem is not limited to the inability to afford sanitary items, but also the limitation of sanitary items. For example, girls using the same sanitary items over a prolonged duration and poor sanitation and hygiene practices due to access to clean water and toilets. According to UNICEF, these kinds of habits have the potential to pose health risks that are linked to urogenital diseases and poor reproductive health[4].

In some severe cases, period poverty can mean that school-going girls will have to skip school and working women will not be able to work during their period.

Source: The Asean Post

It’s A Global Problem 

Period Poverty is not secluded to just developing countries or certain geographical regions, it’s a worldwide problem. In some countries, the stigma and taboo that comes with talking about these issues are palpable, hence women choose to stay struggle silently. 

Source: World Bank
  • In the United Kingdom (UK) it was reported that 1 in 10 girls between the ages of 14 and 21 have been unable to afford menstrual products, while 49% have missed an entire day of school because of their period[5].
  • In Africa, 1 in 10 girls miss school because they don’t have access and cannot afford sanitary products or because their schools do not have clean and private toilets[6]
  • In Kenya alone, 50% of school-age girls do not have access or cannot afford sanitary products[7]
  • In India, 12% of the country’s population of women experiencing menstruation cannot afford sanitary products[8].
  • A study in Ghana, period poverty’s influence on education, appeared to catalyse a sequence of negative events for girls, with implications for their health, safety, learning, fertility, community involvement, and economic wellbeing long after their school careers are over[9].

Closer To Home

Currently in Malaysia, there is no data on the period poverty problem, although in recent years, media attention and efforts have improved to raise awareness and reach out to girls and women in need. 

We spoke to a couple of women in their late 30s suffering from period poverty. While the term period poverty is alien to them, they know full well the impacts poverty has on their monthly cycle.

Zainon binti Ideris is a single mother of two who lives in Chow Kit. Every month she puts aside RM2-5 to buy sanitary pads in budget shops around her neighbourhood.

I have a 16-year-old daughter that needs sanitary pads as well. Some months I don’t have enough money to buy any and I have to borrow money from friends to buy pads. My daughter sometimes skips school when it [period flow] is too heavy and she is scared it will leak or stain her clothes.

Zainon and her teenage daughter.

Another woman, Dayang (not her real name) is a mother of four young children. During her monthly menstrual cycle, she sometimes has to reuse pads or use her children’s diapers when she doesn’t have enough money to buy sanitary pads. Dayang was very embarrassed to share this part of her story, but she hopes that by being open about her struggles she will help others understand that poverty is a very personal problem and it affects people deeply.

I also want others to know that sanitary items are essentials – just like food and water. Women need it every month!

In a news report, Nisha Sabanayagam of All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), said one of the issues surrounding period poverty was the stigma surrounding menstruation.

“There are girls in rural areas who don’t go to school because they are on their period. They don’t have sanitary pads and thus the bloodstains their uniforms. They can’t bear the shame, so they skip school,” she said[10].

Source: The Star

Former Deputy Women, Family and Community Minister, Hannah Yeoh also brought up the issue in a press conference in parliament saying, “ No girl should stop school because of period poverty. This kind of thing should not be happening in Malaysia today.” 

She is aware that there is no data available at the moment but agrees that there is a need for it. “More research should also be encouraged to understand the severity of period poverty in Malaysia, in order to gather data and address the issue efficiently[11].

Source: Air Asia Foundation

In desperate situations, women and girls in Malaysia have been reported using coconut husks, banana leaves and newspapers to replace sanitary products. This exposes women to severe health risks and urinary tract infections[10].

When it came to educational awareness, although most schools had touched on the topic, a UKM study in 2011 identified that education on reproduction systems, health and birth control in schools was only “held casually” and “was not taught in-depth”, covering only certain details[12].

Learn From Other Countries 

It’s not all gloom and doom. There are several countries that Malaysia can learn from. Let’s take a look at what other countries have done to reduce and completely eliminate period poverty: 

Source: Shropshire Star
  • Scotland, led by the first woman minister Nicola Sturgeon gave free access to period products to all women, effectively eliminating period poverty.
  • Zambia led the way, allowing women to have one day off per month for menstruation from 2015.
  • In 2016, France reduced sales tax on period products from 20% to 5.5%.
  • A handful of American states moved to scrap sales tax on tampons in 2016, an effort that is ongoing across the country[13].
  • In 2019, England’s Department of Education released new guidelines for sex and health education in the school curriculum, including adding menstrual health education for BOTH boys and girls[12]

Malaysian Pink Tax

Source: Teenntimes

Our nation was already on the right track back in 2018, when Datuk Seri Subromaniam Tholasy mentioned that there would be no more pink tax for menstrual products! A check on the Customs Department website at the time revealed that sanitary products such as panty liners, sanitary pads and tampons are exempted from the Sales and Service Tax (SST) that is set at either 5% or 10%[14].

This exemption from the SST comes as a relief to the 15.7 million women in Malaysia as they previously had to pay the 6% GST for menstrual products before it was zero-rated on June 1. This tax sparked outrage an and online petition was launched to appeal to the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to put female hygiene products on the zero-rated list rather than an item of luxury. 

You Can Help To End Period Poverty

The UN suggested several ways we can all help to fight against period poverty. Everyone can do something and collectively we can create positive change for girls and women who are struggling silently. It does not need to be hush-hush and taboo. Here are three things you can do: 

  • Donate products to period poverty charities.
  • Start a campaign to end period poverty in your community.
  • Educate, not just girls, but boys on women’s health, how to respect the other gender and specifically for girls, the “what” and “how to’s” of women reproductive health.
  • Raise awareness by writing, blogging or posting on social media[12].

On Our Home Front 

Organisations and communities are rallying together to raise awareness on this issue and doing their part to meet the silent need of girls and women facing period poverty. Here are those helping: 

  • Athena Empowers is a social enterprise that sells reusable pads. Their long term vision is to help reduce period poverty through various educational workshops. A portion of the sales proceeds go towards their outreach programmes and they work with other NGOs to distribute reusable pads to underprivileged communities. 
  • Soroptimist Puberty Organising Toolkit (SPOT) Malaysia is a movement created for girls by girls focusing on providing comprehensive sexuality education since 2015. Their programmes are culturally sensitive and they encourage young women to develop a positive attitude towards sexual and reproductive health.
  • @bungapads sells reusable pads and they work with @theshesociety to raise awareness on women’s health and hygiene issues among the younger generation.
  • @bulansisters is a youth-led campaign aiming to demystify periods and eradicate period poverty in underprivileged communities.

Explore Our Sources: 

  1. Goldberg, ML. (2018). Let’s Talk About Menstrual Hygiene. UN Dispatch. Link.
  2. Mah, J. (2019). Ladies, Here’s How Much Your Period Costs You Over Your Lifetime. Dollars and Sense. Link
  3. UNFPA. (2020). Menstruation and human rights – Frequently asked questions. United Nations Population Funds. Link
  4. UNICEF. (2018). Fast Facts: Nine things you didn’t know about menstruation. Link
  5. Nortajuddin, A. (2020). It’s Time To Talk About Period Poverty. The Asean Post. Link
  6. UNESCO. (2015). Puberty education & menstrual hygiene management. Link.
  7. Action Aid. Period Poverty. Link.
  8. Chatterjee, CB. (2006). Identities in Motion; Migration and Health In India. The Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), Mumbai. Link
  9. P. Montgomery & C. Dolan. (2017). Menstruation and the cycle of poverty. University of Birmingham. Link
  10. Kwan, F. (2020). The Painful Reality of Period Poverty in Malaysia. Free Malaysia Today. Link
  11. Carvalho, M. et al. (2019). Education Ministry Must Gather Data On Students Affected By Period Poverty Says Hannah Yeoh. The Star. Link
  12. Bulan Sisters (2021). Importance of Period Education. Link.
  13. AFP Relaxnews. (2020). What Is Period Poverty? The Star. Link.  
  14. M. M. Chu. (2018). No More Pink Tax for Menstrual Products. The Star. Link.
  15. UN Women. (2019). I am Generation Equality: Amika George, period poverty and education champion. Link.

This piece has been fact checked by Bulan Sisters on 27 January 2021.

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