24 June, 2024

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Celebrating Menstrual Hygiene Day: Reproductive Rights & The Fight Against Period Poverty

By Janakie Seneviratne –

Janakie Seneviratne

Menstruation, commonly referred to as periods, is a biological process universally experienced by people with uteruses. However, cultural perceptions and practices surrounding menstruation vary widely across the globe, and it remains a globally stigmatized issue. These perceptions and stigma can deeply influence how menstruating individuals are treated within their societies. This is why Menstrual Hygiene Day is observed every year on May 28th—to raise awareness about the challenges women and girls face due to menstruation and to highlight solutions to address these challenges.

The terms “menstruation” and “menses” come from the Latin word “mensis,” which means “month.” This is related to the Greek word “mene,” meaning “moon,” and is also the origin of the English words “month” and “moon.” Many myths and traditions assume that menstruation should be in sync with the moon.

Religious and cultural practices and perceptions regarding menstruation are deeply intertwined with broader cultural, social, and gender norms. Common period taboos include the idea that women are impure, dirty, or sinful while menstruating. While traditional views often frame menstruation in terms of purity and impurity, modern movements within various religious communities are working to change these perceptions, aiming for increased inclusivity and respect for those who menstruate.

In Sri Lanka, when a girl experiences her first menstruation, she is often secluded in a room away from men, accompanied by female relatives who are instructed not to leave her alone. ‘Kotahalu Magula’ is then performed to publicly announce to the village that a young woman is now eligible for marriage. According to a study by UNICEF and WaterAid, there are several taboos in Sri Lanka related to menstruation. These taboos and misinformation negatively impact the menstrual hygiene of women and girls, undermining gender equality. They lead to discrimination, causing women and girls to miss out on education, work, and other opportunities in life. For example, 60% of parents in Sri Lanka do not allow their daughters to attend school during their periods, and 80% of teachers believe that bathing should be avoided during menstruation.

Regardless of the religious, cultural, and mythological beliefs surrounding menstruation, it is fundamentally tied to human reproduction, making it a cornerstone of our ability to perpetuate the species. Its absence would lead to infertility, population decline, and significant social and economic challenges. Girls can begin menstruating as young as 7 or 8 years old or as late as 16 or 17 years old. However, even though they are menstruating, girls have not fully developed to the point where they can safely carry a fetus. Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide. Child marriage is a human rights abuse that often denies girls the opportunity to marry a person of their choice.

Although half of the population menstruates, yet many people don’t realize that one in four women struggles to afford menstrual supplies due to financial constraints. This issue, known as menstrual or period poverty, affects individuals we know and interact with daily, such as co-workers and friends. Women working in factories are highly vulnerable because menstruation-related needs, such as bathroom breaks, may be penalized, leading to unequal working conditions.

According to research conducted by Advocata in 2021, the menstrual poverty rate in Sri Lanka is 50%. This means that half of the households with women of menstruating age do not spend any money on sanitary napkins, leading to significant difficulties for these women. According to the World Bank, girls and women need access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities, affordable and appropriate menstrual hygiene materials, and information on good practices to manage menstruation effectively. They also require a supportive environment where they can handle menstruation without shame or stigma. Many non-urban schools, however, lack access to piped water and other essential facilities, exacerbating the challenges faced by girls and women.

Period poverty is not only an economic issue but also a social and political one. Increased economic vulnerability women and girls face, due to the financial burden of purchasing supplies to manage menstruation. These requirements include not only menstrual pads and tampons, but also related expenses such as painkillers and underwear. Ensuring access to these essentials is crucial for the health and development of everyone who menstruates. No girl should miss school, no woman should miss work, and no one should miss out on daily life because they cannot afford basic menstrual supplies. It’s a widespread problem that deserves more attention and action.

The term “tampon tax” (or period tax) has gained popularity to draw attention to the fact that tampons, sanitary napkins, menstrual cups, and similar feminine hygiene products are often subject to value-added tax (VAT) or sales tax, unlike other products considered basic necessities that are tax-exempt. This issue has sparked debates and movements advocating for policy changes to remove taxes on menstrual products to ensure affordability and equitable access for all menstruating individuals.

Recognizing the need to ensure access to menstrual hygiene products for the health and development of everyone who menstruates, many countries since 2004 have abolished or reduced sales taxes for tampons and pads. This includes countries such as Kenya, Canada, India, Colombia, Australia, Germany, and Rwanda. These policy changes aim to alleviate the financial burden on menstruating individuals and ensure equitable access to essential hygiene products. India eliminated its 12% tax on feminine hygiene products in 2018, following a year of lobbying by advocacy groups and celebrities.

Given the current economic difficulties faced by Sri Lanka, finding solutions to alleviate the financial burden of menstrual hygiene products has been challenging and risky. Despite the efforts of Sri Lankan civil activists lobbying for relief, no progress has been made so far. While the government recently exempted various items from duty, including non-essential items like artillery pieces, gold jewelry, exercise equipment, golf equipment, and raw silk, sanitary napkins were excluded from the list.

To improve menstrual management for women in Sri Lanka, the government should take immediate steps to provide comprehensive reproductive health education for adolescent girls and women and reduce the financial burden of menstrual hygiene products. I hope that the National People’s Power (NPP), which may take over government power in the future, has a work plan to address this issue. It is crucial that they prioritize this issue to ensure the well-being and dignity of all women and young girls.

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Latest comments

  • 8
    3

    Janakie,

    You have to make a believer out of ol’ Native Vedda and his ilk …….. he always fights for all the right causes …….. but when it comes to women, he is a bit hesitant ……… to put it mildly …..

    Either he doesn’t like women ……. or women don’t like him. Some men have their own problems too.

  • 2
    0

    Excellent eye-opening piece of work. Most parents do not send their girls to school due to this period-poverty and due to the lack of facilities for girls at the schools. Old traditions are hurting the emotional wellbeing of our girl children, one half of our children population.

    It is the women and mothers who are perpetuating it on our girl children, and they must wake up. How could the government put a tax tampon? It is pure gender discrimination and should be removed forthwith.

    I recall as a very young person that I had to draw water from the well for my elder sister to take bath as she was not allowed! The mind of the people in the society must be freed of this stupidity.

    Some cultures seclude women from their advancement and force them for procreation purposes solely due to this period-poverty. Everything must change. Every man must care for the women in his life; mother, sister and wife and this age-old problem will be eliminated within one generation.

    • 0
      2

      Fairmindedone,
      You probably are weak during the Period. Possibly, the uterus could get damaged due to exertion. Your sister was best advised to avoid straining her body. You err on the safe side.

    • 9
      0

      “Every man must care for the women in his life; mother, sister and wife and this age-old problem will be eliminated within one generation.”

      This is what I was trying to do ……. starting with Native, who is a good man, but unthinkingly/unnecessarily can get harsh towards women.

      Shaming is a valid tactic. Look, how untouchable icons, fell ……. when exposed ……. “Me Too.”

      In most societies – if not all – domestic violence is the primary/main cause of death of women.

      Exposing and shaming men have a marked effect on bringing it down.

      There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

  • 4
    6

    This is a serious subject and will be read by serious people. Please don’t trivialise it with worthless and silly comments.

    • 0
      1

      You seem to know ……. please name one thing that has changed in Lanka due to “serious writing?” Just one would do. I can’t even think of one ……. so I’m asking you with utmost seriousness.

      No offence or insult to Janaki.

      In a silly society, how else can one behave, if not silly?

      Look around it’s the society/country that’s silly: it’s what has got us here. It’ll be silly to be serious in such a society ……. like being serious in a nuthouse.

      At least, It’s still a free society ………. each to his/her own …… you can be serious ……. I can be silly.

      You see hope …… I see futality.

      The world keep on turning. ……. 76 years ….. and counting :))

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