Tackling the social stigma behind period poverty

Wednesday 7 October 2020
Period poverty is a pressing social issue in New Zealand, says Dr Tracy Morison.
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Providing free menstrual products in schools is the first step towards addressing period poverty (photo/Priscilla Dr Preez:Unsplash)

Last updated: Thursday 31 March 2022

By Dr Tracy Morison

Period poverty is a pressing social issue in New Zealand. This has been shown in the recent Youth19 survey of nearly 8000 rangatahi, as well as being a highlighted topic in the second leaders’ debate last week.

Providing free menstrual products to young people is a good first step, but – as with all complex issues rooted in social inequalities – it is not the entire solution. 

Period poverty is a symptom of more generalised poverty, part of the challenge that many families living in poverty face in meeting children’s basic needs. For these families, living expenses may take precedence over menstrual products. Tackling period poverty needs to be part of the government’s larger commitment to addressing poverty and inequality.

Although we may assume only those in poorer countries struggle to afford menstrual products (pads, tampons, cups), a significant number of people in New Zealand have difficulty accessing these necessary products due to cost. One in 12 students, according to the Youth19 survey, stay home during their periods because they can’t afford period products. Many also miss out on work and other opportunities, risk health problems as a result of using inappropriate substitute items, and, of course, experience shame and embarrassment. 

Responding to this issue, the government recently undertook to provide free menstrual products in schools. This has been heralded as a significant step toward tackling period poverty. Indeed, making these products available will help to keep young people in school and address some of the other negative consequences of period poverty. This is important, especially if we consider that this issue most affects girls from poorer communities, and those who are Māori or Pasifika. 

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Health psychologist Dr Tracy Morison.

Solutions that don’t perpetuate shame

Alongside systemic solutions, recent research on global responses to period poverty points to the importance of ensuring that interventions do not perpetuate stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Global period poverty interventions commonly represent menstrual poverty as a hygiene crisis or problem, and adopt a menstrual hygiene management framework. 

These interventions emphasise “hygiene” – implying that menstruation is unclean and undignified, rather than a natural process. Most interventions use a band-aid approach and focus on the successful “management” of menstruation, usually by means of (single-use) “hygiene” products. Such responses simply seek to “fix the problem of menstruation by more effectively concealing it”, according to Chris Bobel, a leading researcher in this field. This inadvertently reinforces the underlying ideas of menstruation as dirty and shameful, rather than challenging these. And it follows the shift in Western society from the invisible menstruating woman to invisible menstruation. Although menstruation is widely spoken of as natural, it is still potentially shameful.

It is also important to note that stigma may be worse for women of colour and those from poorer communities – the very people most affected by menstrual poverty. These women “are constantly challenged to perform respectable forms of femininity in order to avoid shame”, according to UK public health policy expert Dr Louise Laverty. They are more likely to be labelled as “dirty”, “disgusting”, and “unladylike” for failing to uphold (white middle-class) standards of respectability, including proper menstrual hygiene management. 

This was evident in recent research I was involved in, which explored schoolgirls’ experiences of period poverty. The participants came from a low-income community and identified as Māori or part-Māori. They had been referred to the study by staff who were aware of their ongoing difficulties with period poverty. When interviewed, however, the girls were reluctant to disclose their experiences, either downplaying these as one-off events or discussing friends’ experiences. They went to great lengths instead to present themselves as hygienic and competent menstrual managers. Admitting to “failed” menstrual management was too risky if they wished to maintain socially a desirable identity. 

The implications are that those most affected by menstrual poverty may not even be able to speak about it because of underlying stigma. So, it’s imperative that alongside practical and systemic solutions, interventions in New Zealand actively use advocacy and education to tackle the menstrual stigma that is rooted in sexist assumptions about women’s bodies. 

Based on our research, we propose a social justice-oriented approach to menstrual poverty by: 

  • Adopting a rights-based approach in which equality, dignity and full participation in society are seen as a fundamental human right for women and girls, not dependent on the ability to successfully manage menstruation. 
  • Acknowledging overlapping social inequities including gender, ethnicity/race, and class. Solutions include a long-term, systemic component to tackle the root causes, like poverty. 
  • Ensuring solutions are informed by the experiences of those affected. Qualitative research, like our study, can help to bring in these perspectives.

Addressing period poverty requires more than a band-aid solution. Alongside initiatives like free menstrual products, we need interventions that address root causes, including advocacy and education to challenges sexist assumptions about women’s bodies. Left unchecked, period poverty can contribute to widening inequalities in the country.  

Dr Tracy Morison is a health psychologist who lectures in Massey University’s School of Psychology and is currently working on a study about long-acting contraception, funded by the Royal Society.