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What exactly is period poverty?

Around the world, millions of girls, women, and individuals who menstruate are affected by period poverty. Discover more about why this issue persists and what’s being done about it.

4 min read

Between rampant inflation and the current uncertain economic situation, people around the world are watching their living costs go up. Not only does this affect basic things, like fuel for our cars or gas to heat our homes. Other products are increasingly out of reach, such as menstrual products, which are essential to roughly half of the global population. If someone menstruates but can’t access the products they need for their cycle, they’re experiencing period poverty.

In this article, we take a look at period poverty and the devastating impact it has on women, girls, and people who menstruate — not just in Europe, but around the world.

The basics of period poverty

Although the term was coined relatively recently, the issue of period poverty sadly isn’t new. A significant portion of the global population don’t have access to safe, hygienic menstrual products. This includes people who aren’t able to manage their periods with dignity — for example, because they don’t have stable housing — or are forced to use the same menstrual products for longer than it’s safe or advisable. 

Period products aren’t just limited to tampons, pads, menstrual cups, or period underwear, either. It can also include basic items like pain-management drugs such as ibuprofen, or even simply soap or running water. 

Combined, all of this can have significant and lasting consequences on people — especially since alternative ways of managing periods can be unsafe and even harmful. Let’s zoom out and look at some global examples.

Period poverty: a global injustice 

Menstruation isn’t a particularly comfortable or openly discussed subject anywhere in the world — and in many countries, it’s even considered taboo or immoral. The French organization Regles Elementaires estimates that as many as 500 million women experience period poverty globally. For significant parts of the population in some developing nations, period products aren’t readily available. And even in countries with more open attitudes, like Japan, Mexico, and Spain, where employees can take time off during their periods, menstruation can still be a taboo subject — despite appearances to the contrary. 

Around the world, attitudes towards periods can vary greatly from country to country. In Nepal, and many regions of India, menstruating people must be isolated from other members of society and are often required to take “cleansing” baths in order to return to their normal lives. These demeaning practices can take a significant toll on people’s mental and physical well-being. And in some parts of Western Africa, menstruation has been stigmatized as filthy or impure, which can cause deep feelings of shame for people every time they have their periods. 

Practices and attitudes like these stigmatize what is a perfectly natural biological experience. Add the significant financial and social inequities experienced by millions of women around the world, and the likelihood of experiencing period poverty increases dramatically. 

Period poverty across Europe

The European Parliament estimates that women spend around €675 each year (or about €27,000 EUR in their lifetimes) on menstrual hygiene products alone. While data on period poverty across the continent is deeply fragmented, it’s estimated that1 in 10 people who menstruate will experience period poverty. 

While Scotland became the first country in Europe to make period products available for free to anyone that needs them, countries like France and Belgium have taken significant steps to acknowledge and address period poverty for their populations, too. In 2018, the Belgian government lowered the VAT of menstrual products from 21% to 5%, and in 2020 the French government pledged €1 million for schools to fight period poverty among their students. The French Institute for Public Opinion (IFOP) found in 2019 that roughly 1.7 million women experience period poverty in France.

In Spain, a study on Equity and Menstrual Healthheld by the Instituto Universitario de Investigación en Atención Primaria Jordi Gol i Gurina shed light on certain key areas that are common in Spain for menstruating people. Among their findings: 22% of participants said they haven’t been able to afford certain menstrual products at some point in their lives, and 39% have looked for less expensive alternatives to the usual products they buy. Plus, 79% said that they’ve used menstrual products longer than recommended — simply because they didn’t have access to a space where they could change their used product for a fresh one. 

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