To those who menstruate: have you ever had one of those incidents when your period came a little too early and you weren’t prepared for it? And so, you scramble to the toilet for a stopgap measure before you finally find a convenience store? Yes, we’ve all been there. Now, picture the same anxiousness and discomfort that comes with not having a sanitary pad or tampon when you’re really in need and having no access to them. I imagine that’s how the 500 million people globally who experience period poverty feel on a monthly basis.
Period poverty is defined as a menstruating person’s lack of access to safe and hygienic use of sanitary menstrual goods. This issue then leads to problems such as missing out on school, being exposed to a health risk, and facing shame within their communities. We see the same scenario play out in Malaysia too, though the issue is not widely reported or acknowledged.
IT HAPPENS HERE TOO
In 2019, businesswoman/social activist Zuraidah Daut started Projek Oh Bulan!, a movement to fight taboos and put girls back in schools. Zuraidah realised that period poverty was an issue after learning about a young schoolgirl who was constantly absent from school. She told Malay Mail that upon investigation, “I found that the reason she skipped classes was because of period leakage incidents, and she could not afford to buy sanitary pads.”
Maisarah Razali, co-founder of MyBungaPads, echoed this sentiment in a Bernama TV interview. She shared that when girls cannot afford to buy sanitary pads, ‘they would sometimes sacrifice their meals… If they don’t do that, they would use the old cloth as their pad which is very unhygienic,’ and this could lead to an infection as the girls typically use it for an entire day. Those old cloth is just one of a number of items that are used in place of proper sanitary products, alongside coconut husks, newspaper sheets and banana leaves.
Currently there are no official statistics documenting the scale of period poverty in Malaysia. However, the National Population and Family Development Board’s (LPPKN) head of reproductive health unit, Dr Hamizah Mohd Hassan, has publicly asserted that period poverty definitely affects women in B40 communities. This is unsurprising, given that period poverty is a multidimensional issue that affects many different communities in Malaysia: from the B40 group to Orang Asli communities, the homeless, refugees, stateless individuals; the list is seemingly endless.
PERIOD POVERTY: THE CAUSES
Although period poverty has a number of underlying causes, there are three key factors that help to create and perpetuate it: a woman’s socioeconomic status, the stigma surrounding menstruation and a lack of access to clean water and sanitary products.
Projek Oh Bulan! founder Zuraidah Daut told Malay Mail that girls have dropped out of school when their families could not afford to buy them sanitary products, especially in families where there are many female siblings. These income effect have been further amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic which has exposed lower wage workers to higher risks of job losses at a time when these families are already struggling to cope with the high cost of living.
For homeless and displaced people too, sanitary products are an unaffordable luxury. Goh Paul Mae, the founder of The Victress Support (TVS), shares that, “Women make up approximately 40% of the homeless population in Malaysia. Our organisation hopes to empower them by reducing the burden of extra costs affiliated with hygiene items and giving them peace of mind during their period.”
Goh explains that in Malaysia, the average cost of good quality sanitary pads amounts to around RM7 every month; a heavy cost to bear for those who fall into the B40 category, and a situation that becomes all the more stress-inducing for women without a safe shelter.
NGOs such as Athena Empowers and MyBungaPads also address the menstrual needs of Orang Asli communities through outreach programmes such as the #Pads4All campaign, as well as menstrual hygiene management workshops.
Stigma surrounding menstruation
While we don’t force those who are on their periods to live in isolated huts during their time of the month, as many women are forced to do in Nepal, talking about periods in Malaysia still makes a lot of people squirm.
One reason for this may be religion: menstruating women are restricted from taking part in many religious activities. This directly shapes the narrative that periods are dirty and undesirable, when in fact it is a natural, cyclical experience for half the world’s population.
The lack of a Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE) programme in schools also means that Malaysian students often turn to popular media, such as books and the Internet, to find resources about menstruation. Students reported feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable to ask adults about the subject and would much rather turn to female relatives and friends for information.
But what happens when there are no female family or friends to ask? The Victress Support’s Goh shares the story of Siti, a young B40 girl who inspired their Hygiene Awareness Campaign. When Siti’s father was jailed for abuse, her mother became the family’s sole breadwinner and was away at work most of the time. Siti’s first period was a tough experience: she didn’t understand her body and felt so ashamed that she could not leave her room for a week. TVS paid her a visit with sanitary products and showed her the ropes when it comes to menstrual care, thus kickstarting their idea to create a menstrual hygiene management campaign.
With all the societal and cultural skirting around the subject of menstrual cycles, and the financial hardships that buying sanitary products creates, there is a dire need to make these necessary items affordable and accessible to all women and girls.
Lack of access to clean water
Another important aspect for a comfortable menstruation experience is access to clean water and sanitation services. The World Health Organization/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme report in 2015 showed that 92% of the Malaysian population had access to safely managed water services and 82% to safely managed sanitation services. Despite these overall successes, these figures do not reflect the experience of women in marginalised groups, including indigenous communities, refugees and asylum seekers, gender non-conforming persons and others.
Case studies have shown that clean water is a huge barrier for Orang Asli communities, one that significantly affects women, as they are the ones tasked with retrieving water, a painstaking undertaking that typically requires many many trips to and from the well or water source, carrying heavy bottles. These may be the only sources of water for washing, drinking, food preparation, laundry and all the family’s needs. With this in mind, how could menstruation possibly be a comfortable experience? There is a clear need for access to clean water and safe bathroom facilities everywhere.
Understanding that period poverty is an intersectional issue that requires a multi-pronged approach to truly tackle it at its roots, these are some of my recommendations.
On an individual level, consider:
- Volunteering for/donating to an organisation tackling this issue.
- Educating yourself and the people around you about menstrual health and period poverty.
- Looking at how menstrual health can be supported in your surrounding community/schools/company, such as advocating for menstrual leave and providing free sanitary products in public/communal toilets.
On a national level, we need to advocate for the government to look at the following interventions:
- Minding the data gap: we cannot solve a problem we don’t yet know the extent of. Ministries need to look into more vigorous recording of statistics to measure the significance of period poverty in Malaysia.
- Educating our youth: the earlier we teach and talk about menstrual health in schools to young people, the less likely they are to experience the effects of stigmatisation and the more likely they are to make informed decisions.
- Providing free sanitary products: Scotland and England, and a growing number of other nations, have rolled out schemes and budgets to provide free sanitary products in schools and colleges. In Malaysia, the 2021 Budget showed a cut in allocation for LPPKN. While this reflects a disheartening commitment to Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights as an essential healthcare service, I would continue to advocate for the government to work with social enterprises to create affordable and well-rounded solutions, as has been done in India, Kenya and many other countries. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel: we can learn from models that support enterprises to produce and distribute sanitary products economically and empower women in the production process, resulting in a win-win situation for all.
- Ensuring access to water and sanitation: clean and safe bathroom facilities for all, with serious needs to be met through government initiatives in rural areas.
Tam Xueh Wei is a Program Executive on the Social Resilience team at Think City.
I started volunteering with The Victress Support almost a year ago. I was drawn to the organisation because it is tackling a gap that intersects reproductive health and homelessness interventions in Malaysia, two causes close to my heart. In doing so, I realised that I too had much unlearning to do when it comes to talking about periods and all that comes with it. While my own privilege protects me from harm, many other girls experience serious consequences when their periods are treated as a taboo. Menstrual health is a human right. One day, I hope that it won’t seem radical to say it out loud.