One year ago, many Chinese learned about period poverty for the first time because cheap, bulk-packaged sanitary pads sold on an e-commerce platform made headlines.
Some people questioned why anyone could buy such potentially unsanitary pads, reasoning that their safe counterparts cost “only” the price of a few cups of milk tea, but two online buyers suggested they had purchased the products because they could not afford more expensive ones.
The discussion soon evolved into a national conversation on “period poverty,” with a related hashtag garnering billions of views on Weibo, China’s biggest social media platform, revealing a silent struggle that goes unnoticed for a dignified menstrual cycle by millions of women, girls, and people who menstruate.
“Period poverty, seriously?”
According to the International Federation of Gynaecologists and Obstetrics (FIGO) 500 million women and girls cannot access basic feminine hygienic products (2019), whereas every day, around 800 million women and girls menstruate (World Bank 2020). The silent struggle rages loudly on the inside.
This is not just a problem of the Global South. In the United States, nearly 2/3 of low-income women in a large city couldn’t afford menstrual hygiene products, according to a research published by the Journal Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2019. However, the problem is more likely to entangle with other social issues in the developing world.
A report on Kenyan girls found that 65% of females in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya, trade sex for sanitary pads due to lack of affordability and stigma surrounding menstruation. In India, a staggering 88% of women and girls are forced to devise their own hygienic methods using cloth, rags, and ash, putting 70% of women at risk of severe infection. Globally, periods are making womens and girls absent from the workplace and schools.
“It’s 2021. Why is menstrual equity still problematic?”
With the manufacturing techniques of traditional tampons and pads standardized in the last century, feminine hygienic products leave the factory cheap. However, since feminine hygienes are categorized as consumer goods in most countries, the accumulation of marketing expenses, intermediaries, and tax and tariffs raises the price. Take China as an example, the terminal price for an average sanitary pad is 3.3 times its factory price, after marketing expenses equalling 23% of the total sale volume and premium rates of 20-30% at each intermediary (Zhongtai Securities Research Institute, 2020).
The poverty surrounding periods is more a cultural one than an economic one. Taboo and stigma are two easy words to say, but in practice, it comes to the tangible decisions of whether to spend this month’s pocket money on snacks or pads, whether to go to school if there might be stains on skirts, or whether to ask for help or keep the struggle to herself. When even the urban grocery stores wrap sanitary pads with black plastic bags as opposed to white, transparent ones, it is obvious that society’s taboo around sex and reproduction still persists, and it can undermine girls’ confidence at a key stage of development.
Period poverty is not new, but the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Apart from the economic downturn that has put additional stress on a population already in need, many teenage girls also suffer because those who used to receive menstrual kits through schools fall back on themselves again due to school close-offs.
“Putting a period to period poverty”: Inspiring takes from across Asia
1. Young filmmaker and curator combating invisibility in China
In a remote, rural village in Sichuan, Qi was documenting stories related to period poverty with her camera as part of her capstone project. Before Qi, the White Shell Project, an NGO that supports girls’ menstrual rights nationwide, had visited the village trice. For the first time, the NGO’s behind-the-scene effort and rural girls’ touching stories here in the village are going to become visible to a wider audience.
The film extends understanding to the general public by telling the context of each period poverty story, from the absence of a mother in a girl’s adolescence due to the prevalence of laboring in cities, to the change of boys classmates’ attitude throughout the NGO’s reproductive health course. Although the documentary film is still in production, Qi’s podcast sharing her story had already reached thousands of audiences on the internet.
While Qi was documenting the White Shell Project in rural Sichuan, another NGO, MAYLOVE, was curating an interactive exhibition themed on sex education in Shenzhen City. For a whole month, the exhibition created a safe space for public conversations about the taboo topic of sex, calling on artists, NGOs, businesses, and hundreds of thousands of spectators to fight against stigma about sex and reproduction.
(A family visiting the interactive sex educationexhibition.) Source: MAYLOVE
(The exhibition shows ads looking for surrogate mothers onthe walls of a toilet.) Source: MAYLOVE
(Spectators put their names on sanitary pads.) Source: MAYLOVE
2. International NGO tackling traditional myths in Nepal
For ActionAid, an international NGO for women’s and girls’ rights, the localization in Nepal was not easy. In Nepal, the traditional practice of chhaupadi involves banishing women and girls to mud huts or sheds for the duration of their period, or else they are believed to bring their family bad luck or ill health. Although chhaupadi has been illegal in Nepal since 2005, it is still practiced in many rural communities because of its deep roots in the Nepalese’s belief system.
Recognizing the challenges imposed by cultural myths, ActionAid reached out to local activists to set up “women’s groups”, which they call “reflect circles.” Through the groups, ActionAid provides training on sexual and reproductive rights as well as dangers of chhaupadi. As Gauri, 26, a member of an ActionAid reflect circle, explains: "[During menstruation] I had to sleep below [a] goat shed and whenever the goat urinated, it went all over my body. That made me feel really bad…that motivated me to go against chhaupadi. I became a member of a reflect circle and I got sensitized [informed] that it is not the right thing to practice. This made me move away from the chhaupadi practice."
3. Social enterprise fighting three sustainability issues at one time through circular economy in India
Conventionally, 90% of a menstrual pad is plastic, so when founders of Saathi Pads wanted to tackle period poverty in India, they decided to do it in an eco-friendly way. Saathi is the first company in India to manufacture sanitary pads from banana fiber wastes.
Although biodegradable pads already exist in the market, most of them use cotton or sodium polyacrylate (SAP) for absorbent. Cotton uses more than 20,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram, while SAP is derived from crude oil and non-biodegradable. In contrast, Saathi’s banana fibre uses six times less water per ton produced than cotton, and its pads can degrade completely within 6 months of disposal - 1200 times faster than traditional ones. Most importantly, since Saathi source its materials from an agro-waste, no extra land is being taken up by the production of the fibre.
This alo benefits the local community: Saathi sources its materials from farmers who would otherwise discard banana fibers and employs underprivileged women to produce the pads, employed underprivileged women in manufacturing, and launched the #OneMillionPads project with local NGOs Ekal Vidyalaya and Arogya Foundation to provides regular menstrual hygiene education and Saathi biodegradable sanitary pads to thousands of women living in 45 villages in Jharkhand. By January 2021, Saathi has reached 17088 women in rural areas, employed 286 women, and increased farmers’ income by 7M INR (Saathi).
While the problem of period poverty continues to persist, we see hopes rising in these grassroots solutions. Whether it is artist-led destigmatization, NGO-led collaboration, or business-led innovation, each field or each discipline has something inspiring to contribute.
Obstetrics & Gynecology (lww.com)
Oppenheim M. Kenyan girls forced into sex in exchange for sanitary products. The Independent; 2018
The Indian Government May Soon Make Period Products More Affordable (globalcitizen.org)
Climate Co Lab, MIT (2018). Saathi's 100% compostable and biodegradable sanitary pad. Retrieved (12-02-2018) from: https://www.climatecolab.org/contests/2018/circular-economy-economie-circulaire/c/proposal/1334437.