In late 2021, the tabled budget 2022 included the monthly distribution of free personal hygiene kits (including sanitary pads) to 130,000 B40 teenagers. Even though the action was lauded by many as a progressive step in addressing period poverty, the issue runs deeper than just providing sanitary pads to teenage women in lower-income households.
Dr Sharifah Fatimah Alzahrah Syed Hussien, a sociologist at International Islamic University Malaysia stated that period poverty in Malaysia has been only been viewed from one angle; that is the inability of purchasing menstrual products due to financial constraints.
In actuality, period poverty also includes access to menstrual knowledge and education, access to sanitary infrastructure and privacy to change sanitary pads.
The confusion over period poverty must be cleared because if we are not serious about addressing this issue, it will result in a health crisis among women which will have adverse effects on their daily lives. – Dr Sharifah Fatimah Alzahrah Syed Hussien, a sociologist at International Islamic University Malaysia
In discussing period poverty, the plight of the rural folk especially the indigenous communities such as Orang Asli and Orang Asal has not taken centre stage. The emphasis has often been given to lower-income households in urban areas where accessibility is the focus.
Menstruating females in different communities are afflicted with different aspects of period poverty.
Different communities might encounter different aspects of period poverty. For example, Orang Asli communities might encounter not just inaccessibility to sanitary products, but also a lack of access to hygiene and sanitation infrastructure and inadequate awareness of menstruation. – Asrawati Awalina Aslan, researcher at All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
A Costly Purchase
On average, a pack of 16 sanitary pads costs RM10 and a pack of 16 tampons in Malaysia costs RM28. It is also a monthly commitment that could reach up to RM120 per year.
At the same time, the usage of sanitary pads would also depend on the type of blood flow. Some women may require frequent changing of their sanitary pads throughout the day.
In Orang Asli settlements, access to sanitary pads is not as easy as driving to a store to get them. The effort and price paid are something that people overlook.
Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a 22-year-old member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that addresses the plight of Orang Asli youth through videos and other creative content shares that as an Orang Asli woman from the Jakun tribe, she found it hard to access sanitary pads.
In my village, it is hard to find sanitary pads. Even if the shops sell them, they are expensive and unaffordable. I would have to travel to the town area to purchase sanitary pads, and it requires travelling out of the village.-Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
Eliana hoped that there would be alternatives in the future, especially for rural dwellers.
Maybe the possible alternatives in the future should be free sanitary pads or there would be discounts on the items.– Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
The unavailability of sanitary pads and the lack of affordable options are contributing factors to less hygienic alternatives.
Maisarah Razali, co-founder of MyBungaPads shared that some “would sometimes sacrifice their meals… If they don’t do that, they would use the old cloth as their pad which is very unhygienic.” 
Others have also reportedly used other means of non-absorbent materials during menstruation.
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. – Hannah Reshma Jambunathan, former capacity building officer at Women’s Aid Organisation 
Some resorted to getting pregnant every year to avoid paying the hefty cost of buying sanitary pads.
The Shameful Leakage
Zuraidah Daut, a social activist and businesswoman who launched Projek Oh Bulan!, a movement to fight taboos related to menstruation and put girls back in schools, found that schoolgirls were constantly absent from school on their monthly period.
Projek Oh Bulan! found that 41.8% or 40 out of 172 female students did not attend school during her period in a school in Kelantan.
Some girls attend school without wearing sanitary pads during their menstruation, leading to leakage that embarrasses the young girl.
I found that the reason she skipped classes was because of period leakage incidents, and she could not afford to buy sanitary pads. – Zuraidah Daut, a social activist/businesswoman who launched Projek Oh Bulan!
Without access to menstruation pads and also pain relievers, girls would often resort to staying at home during their period. Eliana relied on rest and hot beverages to ease the period cramps.
If I’m suffering from period pain. I would rest and lay down. Sometimes, I’ll drink hot beverages to lessen it. – Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
Sometimes, with the constant absence from school and falling behind in classes, the girls would eventually drop out of school.
In some cases, they completely drop out of school. This will also affect their long term well-being as their socio-economic status will be negatively affected in their adult lives, as a lack of education may hinder them from pursuing careers or finding a job. – Gaayathrey Balakrishnan, capacity building officer of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Protecting The Safety And The Dignity Of The Menstruating Female
92% of the Malaysian population reportedly had access to safely managed water services and 82% to safely managed sanitation services, according to World Health Organisation and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme in 2015. Even so, there are communities that don’t have access to clean water and sanitation services.
Access to clean water is a barrier for the Orang Asli community. Women are often tasked to retrieve water from the well or water sources, carrying heavy bottles.
We have pumps that pump water into a tank but it only lasts a week, it’s not enough. We have to go to the ditch to get water. It’s difficult. If you don’t have a motorcycle, you’ll have to carry a basket and walk far to find water. – Ayu, an Orang Asli woman in Kg.Sandar, Pahang
The same sources of water would have to be rationed for other domestic needs such as washing, drinking, food preparation and laundry.
During menstruation, some would wash their sanitary pads in the nearby running water; affecting the community’s water source.
There have been cases where girls wash their menstrual products in the ocean as well as rivers. – Gaayathrey Balakrishnan, capacity building officer of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
In Eliana’s village, they had to wash the pads and wrap them in newspapers and plastic before burning and disposing of them. The women in the community have to go to great lengths as there are no rubbish trucks that enter their village for waste disposal.
In my village, we don’t have a waste truck that enters to pick up the trash. So, I would have to ensure the sanitary pads are washed and wrapped in old newspapers. I’ll wrap it again in plastic, burn it and dispose of it. – Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
Adding to this dilemma, Eliana shed light that her village doesn’t have proper toilet facilities.
We don’t have proper toilets and the hygiene is lacking as well in the village. – Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
Some Orang Asli settlements have benefitted from proper toilet facilities with the help of local NGOs such as the Global Peace Foundation. However, some would have to defecate outdoors, this only compromise the dignity and the safety of women, especially when menstruating.
Tide Is Changing
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
As time progresses, the Orang Asli womenfolk are more equipped to educate their daughters on puberty and menstruation. Eliana’s mother spoke to her about menstruation before she had her first bloody show.
I learned about menstruation from my mum. Before my first period, she told me what to expect during menstruation, the duration and what are some of the food and drinks that should be avoided. – Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli
But once upon a time, menstruation was a sensitive issue among the community, and no woman would share that she was on her period. There has been more awareness and acceptance in the community.
In the past, it was quite sensitive to talk about menstruation. Women did not reveal to anyone if they were on their period. But now, it’s becoming a norm and others would understand when a woman is on her period or when she is experiencing period pain. –Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
Even so, she was taken aback when she got her first period at the age of 14.
I was schooling at the time and was living in a hostel. At first, I panicked because I don’t have any sanitary pads. But, I told my friends and my mum and everything went well. – Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
Some Are Still Shrouded With Taboo And Stigma
However, there are those in her community who still find that menstruation is a laughing matter.
Some consider periods or menstruation as funny and use it as material to ridicule women. – Eliana A/P Tan Beng Hui, a member of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli.
Notably, there are girls in rural communities who are discriminated against or condemned from participating in certain activities or interactions during menstruation. Gaayathrey Balakrishnan, capacity building officer of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), said this is due to the persisting stigma and taboos surrounding menstruation.
When girls and women are not allowed to take part in any activities and are further shamed due to these stigmas and taboos, there is a loss of agency within them. This further leads to reduced self-esteem which often leads to depression and anxiety. – Gaayathrey Balakrishnan, capacity building officer of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
The lack of awareness and knowledge still inflicts marginalised communities.
For example, the largest undocumented population in Pulau Mabul, Sabah are often exempted from the discourse of period poverty.
In Pulau Mabul, for example, the people have no knowledge of what menstruation is all about. There are also no toilets there and in some areas, they have to buy water in order to bathe. – Fitriyati Bakri, co-founder of BUNGA Pads 
Stronger Solutions Are Required
The government’s initial step of providing monthly free sanitary pads for B40 teenage girls has sparked discussion on period poverty in Malaysia. A welcoming scene as the issues have often been tackled by changemakers working with females from the marginalised communities.
However, the issue of period poverty is a multi-faceted problem that requires a more robust approach than providing a monthly supply of hygiene products, especially for the indigenous communities in Malaysia.
The Orang Asli community in Malaysia remains far removed from the fast-paced development in the cities, as many are still grappling to reach for clean water and sanitation along with access to affordable sanitary pads.
Consulting with people in rural areas or those who work directly with these communities, such as NGOs and academics, and asking what they need to have a dignified period, must also be part of the solution. – Asrawati Awalina Aslan, researcher at All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
Awareness of menstruation and the hygienic practices that should take place is increasing in Orang Asli communities, however, the stigma against periods isn’t isolated to the community alone.
Teaching both boys and girls about menstruation will also help in reducing stigmas and taboos that are related to menstruation. – Gaayathrey Balakrishnan, capacity building officer of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Period poverty is more than just the lack of money, it insinuates the loss of opportunities for many Orang Asli women to have a fulfilling life. Many in the past have quit schools, losing their chances of improving the lives of their community due to a naturally occurring biological process.
Let’s ensure that the newer generation of Orang Asli women will not miss their chance, by supporting changemakers who have assisted the community through free hygiene kits and relentless awareness campaigns such as:
: Athena Empowers
: Soroptimist Puberty Organising Toolkit (SPOT) Malaysia
: Projek Oh Bulan!
: Peduli Merah
Cover image: Forbes
Explore our sources:
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