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Globally to Locally, Period Poverty Affects Millions

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According to the World Bank, as many as 500 million people across the globe lack access to basic menstrual products and hygienic bathroom facilities for use during their menstrual cycles. This lack of affordability and accessibility of menstrual products, coupled with cultural stigma and other societal factors, plays a large role in perpetuating the cycle of what is known as “period poverty.”

Menstruation does not stop for natural disasters, wars, pandemics, or supply chain disruptions, and the lack of menstrual products and basic education on menstruation is a widespread issue at both the domestic and international levels. In both the US and abroad, many people are advocating not only for free menstrual products but also for improvements to restroom and sanitation facilities as well as better education efforts to teach people the facts about menstruation and help fight stigma and cultural taboos.

What exactly is period poverty and why does it occur? What is being done to combat period poverty on campus? How can period poverty be solved internationally? We spoke with AU faculty experts on reproductive policy, staff, and students to answer these questions and more about solutions to period poverty at AU and around the world.

What is Period Poverty?

Nearly half of the world's population will experience menstruation at some point, proving that period poverty is a global issue that is constantly affecting people’s health and livelihood. This issue affects women and others who do not identify as female, including trans men and nonbinary individuals, which is the genesis of the more inclusive phrase “people who menstruate”.

According to CAS professor Rita Jalali, period poverty can be defined as “the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products; water; soap; and private, safe, clean sanitation services to manage menstrual cycles.”

People in the US and around the world are affected by period poverty, but certain populations are affected at a disproportionate level. Internationally, people who menstruate and who have low, or no income are most likely to face period poverty. In the US, homeless, low-income, and/or imprisoned women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals who menstruate are all impacted by period poverty at a much higher rate.

“Period poverty is as much an issue in wealthy countries—including the US—and not just in lower-income countries,” says SIS professor Rachel Robinson.

Around the world, period poverty may affect an individual’s ability to attend work and school, participate in sports and extracurricular activities, and be active in their community. Besides the social implications of period poverty, inadequate access to safe menstrual hygiene products and facilities can result in numerous health complications.

“Research has shown that such deprivation exacts a heavy toll on education, income, and physical and mental health, even in wealthier countries. The use of unhygienic materials can become a risk factor for infection, and a lack of menstrual-friendly toilets at workplaces can increase absenteeism,” says Jalali.

Ending Period Poverty on AU’s Campus

In the US, some students must sacrifice buying menstrual products to meet their basic needs, highlighting the need for affordable and accessible menstrual products on college campuses. To help combat period poverty on a local level, AU has recently installed free menstrual product dispensers in all female and all-gender restrooms in accordance with DC Law 24-92. AU implemented these changes following an extensive series of discussions, including feedback sessions and stakeholder input.

“It became important to us that we bring together a cross-section of campus stakeholders to examine the best way for us to move forward. So, from the moment we started thinking through this, we sought to engage other members of our community—students, staff, faculty,” said AU chief financial officer Bronté Burleigh Jones, whose office oversaw the project. “We'd have the stakeholder group come by and compare this dispenser to this dispenser. We had real conversations about whether the dispensers should be locked so we can be sure that no one tampers with them—that was the kind of care that was put into this.”

During these feedback sessions in November 2022, students, faculty, and staff reviewed several proposed plans for menstrual product dispensers and offered their input.

“They wanted to make sure that they were getting plenty of voices with plenty of representation in the groups,” says AU Graduate Leadership Council vice president Ashley Koon, SPA/MA ’23. “Because there were diverse people with diverse opinions, it wasn’t just an echo chamber in every meeting.”

After considering feedback from the sessions, the economic and labor impact on the university, and the ultimate needs of the campus community, the focus groups and the University reached a decision on menstrual product dispensers. In February 2023, over 330 Evogen securable dispensers were installed in female and all-gender restrooms across campus. For AU, installing and initially stocking the machines had a start-up cost of roughly $150,000; moving forward, supplies will cost an estimated $35,000 to $40,000 annually. For many students on campus, the addition of these dispensers is a step in the right direction toward making sure that student voices are heard, and their needs are met.

“Part of feeling like you belong to a campus community is having access to the things you need to thrive and feeling that those in your community understand your lived experience,” says AU Residence Hall Association president Ashley Jones, SPA ’25. “Free and accessible period products on campus represent these very ideas for students who menstruate here at AU.”

Burleigh Jones sums up AU leadership’s sentiment: “The rigor with which we came to the exercise and the engagement with members of our community is because it doesn't get more personal than this, right? This is a personal and sensitive topic, and we treated it that way. We treat this as something that impacts people's lives, impacts our community.”

Ending the Global Cycle of Period Poverty

While a lack of access to menstrual products and hygienic facilities is a major contributing factor to period poverty, other problems continue to feed into this cycle. Stigma and cultural taboos surrounding menstruation, menstrual blood, and personal hygiene practices in parts of the world can cause individuals to be excluded from school, work, and daily life when menstruating. In low-income, rural, or temporary homes and settlements, private bathing facilities are often a rarity, which leads to a heightened risk of sexual harassment and assault for menstruating individuals when they are forced to use public spaces for hygienic purposes.

Gender inequalities play a role in perpetrating period poverty because issues affecting women are generally low priorities in most countries. “At the household level, gender bias, especially in poor households, puts a lower priority on access to period products and results in hardships,” says Jalali. “Unequal power relations shape the rules of menstrual etiquette and of menstrual taboos that govern the comportment of menstruating women. From early on, girls bear the burden of personal shame as they learn to follow the imperative that the menstrual process should be hidden because menstruation is dirty, disgusting, and defiling.”

Ending the cycle of period poverty requires a variety of policies and programs to address the problem and grass-roots groups should mobilize to put pressure on governments to prioritize this issue.

“I'm a firm believer in looking at root causes and trying to address those. I think rather than airlifting millions of sanitary pads and tampons to places, it's much better to look at why this is happening in the first place,” says Robinson.

Affordable, accessible, sustainable menstrual products, safe, private, and hygienic restrooms, and access to free or low-cost health facilities that address pain and other issues related to menstruation are vital to maintaining good menstrual hygiene and overall health. In order to reduce period poverty, it is important for governments to provide free or at least tax-free menstrual products and ensure such products are easily available in communal places such as schools, prisons, homeless shelters, and public restrooms can help provide a much-needed decrease in period poverty.

Improvements in data collection are also key to ending period poverty on a global scale. By understanding the global rates of period poverty, resources can be better allocated, and further research can be more attuned to the most affected populations. In conjunction with improving global data, education on menstruation enables individuals to take charge of their menstrual health and allows communities to work towards understanding and destigmatizing menstruation.