Periods, known as Mahwari in Urdu, is a natural, biological, and bodily function, which, like many other countries, is highly stigmatized in Pakistani society (Saeed, 2020). What contributes to the stigmatization is the patriarchal structure of our society that discourages healthy and open conversations on periods, calling it a private and shameful bodily function, which, in turn, leads to misinformation and reinforcement of myths like not showering during periods that could heavily compromise menstruators’ health and hygiene (Saeed, 2020). Although menstrual hygiene products are necessities for many; but menstruators around the country- especially those belonging to underprivileged areas, within urban cities and rural areas alike- are deprived of this necessary provision (Jehangir, 2020).
Therefore, period poverty is an umbrella term that includes lack of access to sanitary products and lack of education and awareness on menstrual hygiene and waste disposal, whose effects are exacerbated due to already limited infrastructural facilities like toilets that are integral to maintain hygiene (Jehangir, 2020). As a result of all this, many menstruators resort to unhealthy and non-sanitary practices like sharing rags/ cloths with other menstruating family members, which can cause infections and overall bad reproductive health (Somani, 2021).
Moreover, period poverty is mainly due to two key factors: financial and socio-cultural. The financial factors limit menstruators' ability to access and afford menstrual hygiene products (Jehangir, 2020), while socio-cultural factors, lead to periods being treated as ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’ (Saeed, 2020). Due to such cultural ideas, many children are deliberately kept unaware and misled about periods to protect their ‘innocence, as according to ‘U-Report, 49% of young women in Pakistan have little to no knowledge of periods before they get their first period’ (Somani, 2021).
Periods and their stigmatization
So, despite more than 50% of the Pakistani population getting periods (Jehangir, 2020), it is still considered to be a taboo subject, which results in the ostracization of menstruators (Somani, 2021) who have to carry bloody burdens of ‘shame’ while maintaining secrecy around everything related to periods, ranging from stained clothes to hygiene products. One such instance is buying menstrual hygiene products only in ‘brown bags’ from shops and then hiding them inside the cupboards so that no male family members would know about them.
The implications of Period Poverty on Menstruators
Now, to understand the grave implications of period poverty on menstruators in Pakistan, it is integral to scrutinize this issue through a multidimensional lens as period poverty is not just an issue of affordability- defined by class and economic standing of people in the society- but goes on further to include physical and mental health, hygiene, and socio-cultural concerns.
A menstruator like me- although privileged to afford sanitary products- has faced a plethora of challenges including the lack of empathy shown by teachers in regards to menstruation. Like this one time, my male teacher did not let me go to the toilet, and I ended up with heavily stained clothes in his class. Thus, period poverty is a tough challenge to overcome because it is characterized by the regressive mindsets of people that take decades to change, such as the ‘hush-hush culture’ around periods.
Also, due to the lack of appropriate hygiene products, facilities, and support, many young girls, in particular, often miss school because of the lack of menstrual hygiene products and clean toilets, which impacts the physical and mental health of young menstruators (Jehangir, 2020).
Organizations working to eradicate Period Poverty
In recent times, many people and organizations have taken steps to fight period poverty. One such initiative is taken by the Lokhandwala sisters, called ‘Her Pakistan’, who organize various sessions in different communities and educational institutions around the country, but especially in underprivileged areas. The rationale behind this initiative is to provide correct knowledge and education regarding menstruation to women and offer a much-needed safe space ‘where menstruators can discuss their problems without any fear of being judged’ (Saeed, 2020).
Similarly, Bhaitak Pakistan is another grass root level organization based in Sindh. They initiate conversations with women in local communities about sexual and reproductive health through lady health workers of the respective communities, who try to make ‘women understand- in their local language- the consequences of treating menstruation as a taboo topic’ (Saeed, 2020).
Moreover, UNICEF has also conducted projects in the past to tackle period poverty; one such project was in collaboration with U-Report, called the Menstrual Hygiene Innovation Challenge, which aimed to ‘encourage young men and women to pitch their projects to educate their local communities on menstruation’ (Somani, 2021, n.p.)
In addition to this, there are a few start-ups that aim to mitigate period poverty. Girly things, for instance, is an app that delivers period products at home especially, to women with disabilities (Somani, 2021). Their products include ‘essentials such as disposable underwear, pads, and bloodstain remover’ (Somani, 2021).
Also, Aitebar Foundation plans on distributing sustainable ‘period kits’ to menstruators in underprivileged communities whose members cannot afford sanitary products this summer. These kits would contain five reusable eco-friendly cloth pads, a cloth holder, and a couple of cloth underwears, which would allow menstruators enough time to wash and dry their cloth pads, reducing the chances of possible infections. Plus, the organization will also be conducting awareness sessions regarding menstruation, which would shatter some misconceptions regarding periods and also cover ways to properly use, wash, dry, and dispose of cloth pads.
Ways we can help eradicate Period poverty
On an individual level, we can be more empathetic towards menstruators, often women who are often faced with many challenges but are still expected to contribute to housework without any accommodations. Also, we should donate to places that are actively working to mitigate period poverty while families and schools should create adequate awareness regarding menstrual hygiene and provide necessary emotional support to the menstruators.
Most importantly, the government should treat period poverty as a pressing issue that severely impacts the lives of millions of people and state-level awareness should be created on an extensive level regarding menstrual hygiene using print and social media (Jehangir, 2020).
Moreover, following the footsteps of Scotland, the Pakistani government, in the long run, should pass legislation to provide free-of-cost sanitary products to menstruators, available at all schools and public places. The government for now could work to remove the heavy taxations levied on period products to make them more affordable for menstruators (Jehangir, 2020). Also, the government should provide subsidies to start-ups that could utilize technologies and help tackle period poverty (Somani, 2021).
Lastly, period poverty is a source of concern for countries all around the world, because many menstruators have been suffering for so long- often silently-due to lack of finances and cultural practices, which immensely affect their quality of life. Therefore, as fellow human beings, we can be empathetic towards menstruators and provide adequate support to people who are victims of period poverty. Also, we should pledge to raise better and sensitized children who care for each other and do not regard natural bodily functions as shameful.
Jehangir, A. (2020, December 26). Period poverty. Retrieved from The Express Tribune: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2277451/period-poverty
Noujaim, M. R. (2020, August 31). Period Poverty: A Persistently Gnawing Issue. Retrieved from WatchDogs Gazette: https://watchdogsgazette.com/affairs/period-poverty-a-persistently-gnawing-issue/
Saeed, S. (2020, July 21). Staining Clothes And Conversation: Pakistan’s Period Poverty. Retrieved from The Oxford Blue: https://www.theoxfordblue.co.uk/2020/07/21/staining-clothes-and-conversation-pakistans-period-poverty/
Somani, A. (2021, January 7). Combating period poverty in Pakistan. Retrieved from The Borjen Project: https://borgenproject.org/period-poverty-in-pakistan/