Access to menstrual products should be treated as a necessity, not a luxury. With primary and high schools back to face-to-face delivery after nearly two years of remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the ideal time to address period poverty.
Many adolescent girls are affected by period poverty, the public health crisis of not being able to meet their basic sanitary needs for menstruation. According to research conducted by Shelly-Ann Weeks of the HerFlow Foundation during the Free Her Flow School Tour, 44 per cent of girls in Jamaica suffer from period poverty, which means they go without sanitary supplies for a portion of the year. These affected girls would frequently stay at home during their periods, and some would seek sanitary products from peers, teachers, or guidance counselors.
Menstruation is a natural human biological process that comes with hygienic and sanitary needs that we expect to be met reliably and comfortably in public spaces. This, however, is not always the case. Girls don’t always have access to menstrual products, clean bathroom facilities, toilet paper, or bins that allow them to be comfortable at school, engage in learning, and manage a normal and healthy part of life. The reality of period poverty, combined with the lingering social stigma – that menstruation is something to be ashamed of and go to great lengths to conceal – attached to having periods. There is also the prohibitive nature of this topic, which has long-term implications on a student’s academic and non-academic life. Staying home affects attendance and engagement; students are putting their lives on hold rather than face the stress and societal shame associated with periods.
Missing days at school might lead to a girl dropping out entirely. When these girls do not have access to adequate menstrual hygiene products, they are forced to improvise, often using unhygienic alternatives such as paper towels, toilet paper, old rags, socks, strips of cloth, baby diapers, among others. These options, along with improper menstrual hygiene management, can lead to the urinary tract and other infections that are damaging to the mental and physical well-being of adolescent girls.
What is required is having easy access to free feminine hygiene products, and a safe space where students can be educated about period poverty and safe practices for menstruation, as well as ask questions. They should be able to discuss their problems and seek assistance, and our schools can help a girl access education without interruptions and avoid these repercussions.
Where schools are unable to fulfill their students’ needs, a government scheme that provides free menstrual products to all female students, beginning with those on the Program of Advancement Through Health And Education (PATH), will help to alleviate period poverty for many girls and , by extension, women who are forced to choose between feeding their families and addressing their menstrual health. Jamaicans and manufacturers of feminine hygiene products may help by donating feminine hygiene products to schools or community centers.
Further, having open and honest talks about menstruation at home can help to eradicate stigma and shift attitudes and beliefs about reproductive health. Regardless of if we are policymakers or just regular citizens, we are all capable of effecting change to help create a society that is supportive of menstrual health.
Period poverty is unacceptable. Far too many students are unable to afford basic sanitary products. Only by accepting this awful truth can we begin to take the necessary steps to address the issue and ensure that our girls have access to the period products they require to live and enjoy a healthy and normal life.
Periods should not be a barrier to learning for any student.
– Brittany Jackson, is a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Arts and Technology student at the University of Technology in Jamaica. She wrote this piece as part of her media project di lei, in which she is launching a menstrual matters campaign to keep students in school during their periods and help end period poverty in Jamaica.