What is Period Poverty?

Period poverty is typically understood as a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraint. However, research indicates that it is often more complicated than this. 

Today, we now know that period poverty is a toxic trio of the cost of sanitary products, lack of education, stigma and cultural taboo surrounding menstrual health.

Although menstruation is a necessary biological function shared by more than half of the world’s population, it is a topic that globally we are tentative to discuss.  In the UK, 48% of girls are embarrassed by their periods while an international study has found that there are about 5,000 slang words used to refer to menstruation in 10 different languages. Slang phrases such as “it’s that time of the month” or even reference to “the red plague” indicates societies’ failure to take periods seriously.

This is why menstrual health management, such as EdUKaid’s Heshima Project, is vital to help end period poverty. 

The Relationship Between Periods and Human Rights

As Hannah Neumeyer, Head of Human Rights at WASH United Nations succinctly states, the association of periods as being “dirty” and “shameful”, is not only a global issue, but also a human rights issue.

Women and girls have human rights, and they have periods. One should not defeat the other

Menstruation brings with it a significant hygiene challenge, with lack of access to safe sanitary products risking infection and infertility. Menstruation can also act as an obstacle to the right to education. According to UNESCO, 1/10 girls in Africa will miss school when they have their period. In Tanzania, this figure is greater, 16% of girls saying that their periods keep them out of school.

Beyond the obvious impact on studies, time away from school pushes women into the private sphere of unpaid care, while increasing the likelihood of child marriage and teen pregnancies. Recent Save the Children research tells us that a further 2.5 million girls are at risk of marriage by 2025 due to school closures during Covid-19. This is the greatest surge in child marriage rates in 25 years.

Traditional Teachings in Tanzania

In Tanzania, the hub of EdUKaid’s work – all three elements of the toxic trio are present. Most notable is the shame and misinformation surrounding menstruation. In rural areas, tradition remains with unyago (an informal education to girls) being conducted directly after the first period by elder women in the community known as Kungwi. Research by EdUKaid, amongst others, has indicated that these unyago trainings offer instruction to girls as young as 9 on how to please a man sexually while failing to teach anything about contraception or sexual reproductive rights. Social scientist, Helgesson, has gone a step further by linking unyago to school drop outs, marriages and the pursuit of romance over education. Tanzanian activists such as Mwanahamisi (Mishy) Singano add to this. In speaking about her first period, Mishy recalls her mother ignoring her calls for help and instead her aunt’s firm instructions that nobody should know when she is menstruating, nor should she leave the house when bleeding.

This misinformation surrounding periods has led to an invisibility of statistics on menstrual health in Tanzania. It is clear that if we are to tackle period poverty, it must be done so sustainably by addressing the issue holistically. This means not just providing access to sanitation and sanitary products but changing discriminatory behaviours, misinformation and cultural taboos that prevent women and girls from managing their periods with dignity.

Sustainable Menstrual Health Management

EdUKaid’s Heshima Project, funded by UK Aid, leads by example in menstrual health management. The Heshima Project provides a cost-effective solution to all three aspects of period poverty. Project activities and results to date include:

Issa Mfaume, Chairman of the School Committee “Heshima Project has helped in improving the attendance of girls in schools because girls and the community have been provided with menstrual health education which was the main cause of absenteeism and drop out in our school”.

Rukja Ismail, Parent “I am very grateful to EdUKaid for its Heshima Project which has enabled my daughter to understand her rights as a girl, to be confident and this has enabled my daughter and I to freely talk and discuss about her menstruations”.

By involving both elders, Kungwi, parents, boys, education officials and local actors in menstrual health management, the Heshima Project is now self-sufficient. The Kungwi’s role in girl’s sex education remains, this time unyago voicing menstruation in a positive and dignified manner while encouraging girls to remain in school. In doing so, it is hoped that girl’s periods and their human rights no longer need to be seen in opposition.

If you would like to assist EdUKaid in tackling the root causes of period poverty, please consider donating or fundraising here