Global Action to End Period Poverty
Twenty years ago, after completing her term as Principal of Loreto Kirribilli, Sr Anne Kelly was employed by Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) to work in northern Uganda with refugees from South Sudan. For ten years, her South Sudanese colleagues had been lamenting the fact that although equal numbers of girls and boys completed primary school, by the end of the first year of high school, most girls had left. They presumed that the reason this kept happening was because as girls matured, they were expected to take on the domestic chores of the household, such as collecting water and firewood, cooking, washing, minding younger siblings, and working in the fields.
When Sr Anne had grasped the local language, she suggested that the girls be spoken to and asked why they discontinued their schooling. The response was not as expected. She was told that once their periods started, they had to stop going to school. Why? Because not only were there no feminine hygiene products available in the remote rural communities in which they lived, but underwear didn’t exist either.
Upon learning this, an indignant Sr Anne immediately made an appointment with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to enlist support in solving the problem. Within weeks a major project was underway to source underwear and to enable girls to make recyclable sanitary products for themselves. School attendance figures increased exponentially and have continued to do so since then.
This is the reality that is period poverty. A real and widespread issue across the entire globe. A struggle that, amongst many others, should simply not exist. From Mozambique, Tanzania and India, to Scotland, the United States and Australia, period poverty is prevalent. Access to sanitary products and safe, hygienic spaces to use them is a challenge faced by significant numbers of women of all ages. A 2018 survey in the UK conducted by sanitary pad manufacturer Always claimed 137,700 girls in the UK missed school in 2017 because they couldn’t afford sanitary items. Similarly, a US study conducted in 2017 found that one in five American girls aged 16 – 24 had either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to period products.
In India, young girls and adolescent women often grow up with limited knowledge of why they have periods because their mothers and other women shy away from discussing the issue with them. For many girls in rural areas, having their period is a reason to quit school due to lack of facilities and appropriate sanitary products. Many women and girls use unsanitary materials such as old rags, husks, dried leaves, grass, ash, sand, or newspapers as ‘sanitary pads’ because they do not have access to affordable and safe products.
Loreto Sister Monica Suchiang, with the support of Mary Ward International Australia, is working toward ending period poverty in India. Sr Monica and the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre (KMWMC) aim to equip 5000 adolescent girls and women with sanitary pads, training on how to use them, and educate women, girls, and men on health, hygiene, and menstruation. The project titled ‘Landing Pad’ will include the purchase of raw materials for sanitary pad production and best practice, local manufacturing of sanitary pads by KMWSC. Raising awareness will be a key aspect of this project, focusing on training to eliminate the social stigma surrounding menstruation and reproductive health education.
All over the world, members of our global Mary Ward community are mobilising for gender equity, particularly our youth, who act as drivers of change, advocating for a world free from inequalities. An International Youth Day Webinar hosted by IBVM and CJ UN representatives in 2020 focused on the theme “Youth Engagement for Global Action”. The webinar highlighted how the engagement of young people at local, national and global levels is enriching national and multilateral institutions and processes. At this webinar, the 2020-2021 head girl from Loreto Altrincham in the United Kingdom, Ailish Gaughan, spoke of her passion for women’s rights and gender equality. Ailish talked about the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls in the United Kingdom – school closures, job losses, and the first recession in 11 years in the UK has seriously impacted access to sanitary products. She now looks to set up a donation scheme globally to fight this critical issue.
Period poverty is a barrier to global gender equity. The freedom to manage menstruation confidently, safely, and with dignity is a fundamental human right and the right of every woman and girl.
Periods should not be a barrier to education. They should not cause shame… Let’s all commit to fighting period poverty around the world.
– Isobel Marshall, Young Australian of the Year 2021
Author: Anna Turkington