Period poverty is just one side effect of the poverty and social inequality that millions of people experience every day. Given the scarcity of data on period poverty globally, there isn't adequate quantitative research on how period poverty affects economic empowerment
While growing up, I recall my mother sitting outside the kitchen alone, sipping tea from a steel glass while the rest of us ate breakfast at the dining table.
I would steal occasional glances at her throughout my meals, signalling her to join us, but she always declined. For a week, she would eat her meals alone and wash all of her utensils in the bathroom.
I'd always wondered why she avoided the kitchen.
Ironically, the mystery was finally solved when, at the age of 12, I was similarly banished from the kitchen after having my first period.
Ever since menarche, visiting my grandmother's house has been an otherworldly experience. During my menstruation cycles, I must announce that I am on my period to my entire family and be barred from the kitchen and prayer room as a 'punishment'.
Yet, I cannot say that I have it the worst. My grandmother is far more lenient than the average Nepali. No matter how long my menstruation cycle lasts, the restrictions are lifted on the fourth day.
Moreover, I have a safe roof over my head, clean water and nutritious food, but what about the girls who are confined to cowsheds and living without basic menstrual products? While limited access to menstrual products is a significant issue, the intense stigma surrounding periods in Nepali society is even more so. Nepali women, in particular, discreetly refer to periods as "nachune" or "means," exposing the shame of the social stigma surrounding periods.
In 2016, the International Women's Health Coalition published a report revealing that women globally used over 5,000 euphemisms for their periods.
The irony is that, upon closer examination, the term 'period' is simply another euphemism for menstruation, implying that a woman's menstrual cycle is just a 'period' of menstruation.
During the pandemic, menstruation and the intense stigma associated with it have grown manifold.
Menstrual taboos are common in many low and middle-income countries (LMICs) like Nepal. The continuous lockdowns have further reinforced harmful practices and fuelled the pre-existing stigma surrounding menstruation.
Countless superstitions and myths surround menstruation today, including period blood is impure, menstruating women should not face men and menstruating women should not travel.
Unfortunately, in a world where an increasing number of adult women are engaging in the workforce, these restrictions are likely to have economic repercussions.
Although, we have all learnt a lesson about the importance of regular handwashing during this pandemic, neither general hygiene nor menstrual hygiene stops there. Many girls and women in Nepal's impoverished rural areas simply do not have access to clean flowing water or soap, even without the demands of the lockdown.
They also face a lack of menstrual products, and even if they do have access to them, the added stigma at home makes daily life even more difficult. Moreover, the lockdown and school closures have eliminated many girls' sources of menstrual products. In 2020, the government set aside 1.82 billion rupees for the purchase and distribution of free sanitary pads to nearly 29,000 government-aided schools in Nepal.
However, distribution was scheduled to resume only when schools reopened.
On the other hand, today, period poverty is a major contributing factor to the lack of menstruation hygiene and products. It refers to the difficulty many low-income women and girls have in affording menstruation products. The word also alludes to the increased economic vulnerability that women and girls suffer from the high cost of menstruation supplies.
Globally, an estimated 500 million women who menstruate lack access to menstrual products and hygiene facilities. Although period poverty may be caused by several reasons, the main reason behind it is low or loss of income. According to the Nepal government, 18.7 per cent of the Nepali population is currently living below the poverty line. Period products are often considered as non-essential in households that can barely afford a decent meal, resulting in menstruating parents prioritising their children's basic needs over these necessities for themselves or their menstruating children.
Similarly, a family may be earning a comfortable income before a change in circumstances, such as being affected by natural disasters, which may result in a significant decrease in that family's income. Sadly, in spite of being a significant issue for women and girls of menstruating age, menstrual health management is often neglected in post-disaster responses.
Thus, in such situations, when a household is dependent on a primary earner, and that person loses his job or becomes unable to work for other reasons, the financial constraints may lead to period poverty.
According to World Bank figures, better menstruation management can benefit both society and national economies: with every 1 per cent increase in the proportion of women with secondary education, a country's annual per capita income grows by 0.3 per cent. However, more than one in four adolescent girls miss school during the menstrual period in Nepal.
Research shows that poor school attainment reduces girls' economic potential over their life course.
Period poverty is just one side effect of the poverty and social inequality that millions of people experience every day. Given the scarcity of data on period poverty globally, there isn't adequate quantitative research on how period poverty affects economic empowerment or how it relates to other barriers that women and girls encounter.
However, the more we talk about the prevalence of period poverty in our society, the better we will be at bringing about change. Despite the numerous challenges to overcome, we must acknowledge that a lot has been done globally to help eradicate period poverty. Yet, for the unresolved issues, we must ask ourselves, while times are changing, this pandemic has no end date, so if not now, when?
Basnet is a student pursuing economics at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
A version of this article appears in the print on February 16, 2022, of The Himalayan Times.