Have you ever slipped a tampon/pad up your sleeve when needing to change in public spaces? Have you used codes to ask for sanitary products in public spaces? Have you used tissue paper or other alternatives because you did not have access to sanitary products? Have you had to plan your trip around your period because you did not want to deal with disposal? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are one of many women who have experienced period poverty.
Note that this is not an exhaustive list as period poverty can manifest in different ways.
The American Medical Women’s Association  defines period poverty as “the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and educations, including but not limited to sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management”. While menstruation is a normal part of puberty for people with ovaries*, there is a stigma around it. Growing up in Nigeria, I remember how I took a black plastic bag whenever I purchased sanitary products just to conceal my purchase. I still get nervous when I buy sanitary products in Canada, but I am getting better at owning it. It is easy to think this is a problem only in low and middle-income countries (LMIC). However, period poverty is also prevalent in high-income countries. For example, Plan International Canada reported that a third of Canadian cis women under 25 have struggled to purchase sanitary products . This problem is even more pronounced when we look at Indigenous communities. These communities must deal with increased costs compared to other communities, lack of access to clean water, and/or food security, amongst several other social factors. These social factors make Indigenous communities even more vulnerable.
Experts estimate that the average person with ovaries spends at least six years menstruating throughout their lifetime, so why is there still a stigma around menstruation? . I think it is because we spend so much time educating people with ovaries, we fail to include other members of society. Society (i.e. culture and religion) has also conditioned us to see menstruation as a dirty and negative thing. Not to mention how women are often accused of “PMSing” (i.e. Premenstrual syndrome). Furthermore, the health sector fails to address period poverty as a public health issue. We see this in the distribution of free condoms but not free sanitary products even though they are just as essential as condoms. Most public spaces that do have sanitary products available make you pay for it. Period poverty is a public health issue and should be addressed as such because of its impact on the health of people with ovaries.
From the World Health Organization (WHO)’s definition of health, we know that health is not just the absence of disease but a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Of the 2,000 cis women under age 25 surveyed by Plan International Canada, 83% do not fully participate in events when on their period, and 70% have missed school, work or social activities because of their period . These numbers show the impact of period poverty on social and mental wellbeing. Concerns around changing or leaking do not help either. Furthermore, not having access to sanitary products can lead to physical health issues like lower reproductive tract infections and toxic shock syndrome, which impact the sexual and reproductive health of women.
As we live through a pandemic, let us not forget the 1.8 billion people who menstruate and still require access to sanitary products, toilets, soap, water, and private spaces. After all, periods do not cease because there is a pandemic, so we need to maintain and adapt services even as we address other COVID-19 related priorities . Canada has taken some steps to tackle period poverty like ending “tampon tax” and British Columbia requiring public schools to provide free sanitary products for students in school bathrooms. However, more still needs to be done. The world needs to have more discussions around periods that include boys and men to overcome the associated stigma.
Furthermore, we need leaders who see period poverty as the issue that it is. For example, New Zealand will be providing free sanitary products in schools across the country . We also need to support initiatives that increase access to sanitary products, washing facilities and waste management like the cost-effective sanitary napkin making machine invented by Arunachalam Muruganantham in India. I would recommend watching the short documentary “Period. End of Sentence.” as it empowers women to address period poverty, especially in an LMIC context. You can get involved in ending period poverty by supporting organizations like Days For Girls, Plan International Canada, Indigenous centres, and LGBTQ2S+ advocacy groups.
*people with ovaries and women are used interchangeably in this post for the purpose of inclusivity.
Special thanks to @Eemaan Thind for her contribution and insight on this topic.
 Alvarez, A. (October 31, 2019). Period Poverty. American Medical Women’s Association. Retrieved from https://www.amwa-doc.org/period-poverty/
 Dubé, D. (May 29, 2018). One-third of young Canadian women can’t afford menstrual products, report finds. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4239800/canada-cost-of-menstrual-products/
D’Sa, V. (June 25, 2019). Period poverty in Canada and around the globe. CPHA. Retrieved from https://www.cpha.ca/period-poverty-canada-and-around-globe
 Khoo, I. (May 28, 2018). One-third of Canadian women under 25 have struggled to afford menstrual products: Poll. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/05/28/period-poverty-canada_a_23445438/
 Sommer, M., Kamowa, V. & Mahon, T. (May 28, 2020). Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate. DEVEX. Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/sponsored/opinion-creating-a-more-equal-post-covid-19-world-for-people-who-menstruate-97312?fbclid=IwAR2d2DErZLgKOnh_bR5zLHYTMTrJjPKsT5BKxcNECCPSfKBRlYvYys-w4jA
 Roy, E.A. (June 3, 2020). New Zealand tackles ‘period poverty
With free sanitary products for all schoolgirls. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/03/new-zealand-tackles-period-poverty-with-free-sanitary-products-for-all-schoolgirls?fbclid=IwAR3GX1L_2fhKYCNgWN54zw4HZfa0V1QfFjyUCpedtEdLgiIhN9A18IzteKU