Worldwide, according to the World Bank, 500 million girls and women are affected and yet it is a relatively unknown problem: menstrual poverty. It means that someone has no money to buy tampons or pads every month. Moreover, this is often difficult to discuss, because there is shame around both poverty and menstruation. In this way, millions of people have a problem every month, whether that is in a prosperous country like the Netherlands, or in a country like Suriname, where there is less prosperity.
“Women and girls, for example, run health risks,” says Mascha Singeling of the development organization Plan International. “Those who cannot afford sanitary towels or tampons sometimes use toilet paper, old cloths or a newspaper. That increases the risk of infections.”
In addition, people who cannot afford menstrual products become less mobile. Anyone who leaks once and is laughed at for that, no longer wants to go to school or work. This leads to learning delays or a reduction in income. In this way, menstrual poverty and menstrual shame are detrimental to a woman’s self-esteem.
Control over your own body
In 2019, Plan International investigated how many women and girls in the Netherlands are affected by menstrual poverty: an average of 1 in 10. There is a growing awareness that something can be done about this. For the past year or so, minima in Rotterdam have been able to buy sanitary towels and tampons from HEMA at the expense of the municipality. The Poverty Fund provides free menstrual products. In addition, following the example of bookcases, cupboards with free menstrual products are also appearing in more and more villages and towns.
In Amsterdam, the Neighborhood Feminists are committed to people suffering from menstrual poverty. They have been supplying menstrual products to shelters for the homeless and undocumented for two years now. They want to reach a wider audience through neighborhood cabinets.
“We notice that there is a lot of demand for sanitary towels in particular,” says Nicole Römer of Neighborhood Feminists. “It is important that people feel in control of their own body and use exactly the products they want. We are aware that all those disposable products are not sustainable. But those who do not have a permanent place of residence or residence do not always have the luxury of a clean environment to properly clean reusable products such as menstrual cups.”
Also outside the Netherlands, people are looking for ways to do something about menstrual poverty. Kenya became the first country in the world to offer free sanitary pads in schools in 2017. Scotland then became the first country in the world to pass a law in 2021 stating that menstrual products are free for everyone. Since then, tampons and sanitary pads have been available free of charge in, for example, pharmacies and community centers.
Bettina Bildhauer, of the University of St Andrews, is researching Scottish law with the Menstruation Research Network (UK) and explaining its benefits: “As free access to menstrual products is now a right for everyone, it is also an advantage for everyone.Firstly for the families who need the products: those who do not have to spend money on sanitary towels can buy food from them again.But also think of trans people who need menstrual products and who find it difficult to get a to step into a full store. The Scottish law lowers the threshold for them too.”
Plan International is trying to do something about menstrual poverty in more than 25 countries. It is important to enter into dialogue with women and men through education and information, so that everyone knows, for example, what menstruation is and how you can make and wash reusable menstrual products yourself.
“When we started doing this, a school director in Uganda was not supposed to know anything about it,” says Mascha Singeling. “But when I spoke to him again later, he said that he now even talks to his own daughter about menstruation. That is the culture change you need to permanently change something about menstrual poverty and shame.”