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 stop-gap measure before you finally find a convenience store? Yes, we’ve all been there.
Now, picture that very same anxiousness and discomfort that comes with the lack of a sanitary pad or tampon when you really needed it but did not have access to any — I imagine that to be how at least 500 million people experiencing period poverty globally 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 this play out in Malaysia as well, but it is a lesser known issue.
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. She realised that period poverty was an issue after learning about a young schoolgirl who was constantly absent from school. Zuraidah 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.”
MyBungaPads co-founder, Maisarah Razali 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.
Old cloth being another item on the list of things that have been used in place of proper sanitary products, alongside coconut husks, newspaper sheets and banana leaves.
WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Currently there are no official statistics on the extent 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 said on a panel that period poverty certainly affects women from the B40 group.
That is not a surprising statement considering the fact that period poverty is a multidimensional issue that affects many different communities in Malaysia. From the B40 group to Orang Asli communities, the homeless community, refugees, stateless persons…the list is endless.
The cause of period poverty can be boiled down to three main factors — lower socioeconomic status, the stigma that comes with menstruation, and the 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 sanitary products due to dire financial straits, and especially when there are many female siblings in a family. This has since been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic that has exposed lower wage workers to higher risks of job losses despite the fact that low income families have already been struggling to cope with the high cost of living.
Similarly, for homeless or displaced persons, sanitary products are a luxury. Founder of The Victress Support, Goh Paul Mae 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 goes on to share that in Malaysia, the average cost of good quality sanitary pads amounts to RM7 every month, which is a heavy cost to bear for those under the B40 category. This is further exacerbated and stress inducing for those without a safe shelter.
Other NGOs such as Athena Empowers and MyBungaPads also address the menstrual needs of Orang Asli communities through their outreach programmes, such as the #Pads4All campaign and menstrual hygiene management workshops.
Stigma around menstruation
While we don’t force those who are on their periods to live in isolated huts on their time of the month like in Nepal, talking about periods in Malaysia still makes quite a lot of people squirm.
One reason for that could be because for many religious activities, those experiencing menstruation would be restricted from taking part. This directly shapes the narrative that periods are dirty and undesirable, when in fact it is natural to half the world’s population.
The lack of a Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE) in schools also means that Malaysian students often turn to mass media such as books and the Internet for resources on menstruation. Students reported feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable to ask adults about it, and would much rather turn to female relatives and friends for information.
What happens when no female family or friends are close by? The Victress Support’s Goh shared the story of Siti, a young B40 girl who was the inspiration for their Hygiene Awareness Campaign. When Siti’s father was jailed for abuse, her mother became the sole breadwinner and was thus absent most of the time. Siti had a tough first period experience when she did not understand her body, feeling 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 to menstrual care, thus kick starting their idea for a menstrual hygiene management campaign.
With all the skirting around menstrual cycles and financial restrictions, they often lead to a lack of access to sanitary products. There is a dire need to make such 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 that, high averages of success does not reflect the access of marginalised groups such as indigenous communities, refugees and asylum seekers, gender non-conforming persons and so on.
A case study showed that clean water is a huge barrier for Orang Asli, and in particular women are affected as they are tasked with retrieving water, often painstakingly through many trips to and from the well, carrying heavy bottles. They are also tasked to clean the clothes and the younger children with these unclean water. Bearing these in mind, how could menstruation possibly be an easy time of the month? There is a need for access to water and clean and safe bathroom facilities everywhere.
Knowing now 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 on menstrual health and period poverty.
- Looking into your surrounding community / schools / company on how menstrual health can be supported, such as advocating for menstrual leave and providing free sanitary products in public toilets.
On a national level, we need to advocate for the government to look into the following interventions:
- Mind 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.
- Educate our youth — The earlier we teach and talk about menstrual health in schools to young people, the less likely they would experience the effects of stigmatisation and more likely to make informed decisions.
- Provide free sanitary products — While England’s government had just joined the likes of Scotland in rolling out a scheme to provide schools and colleges with a budget for the products. In Malaysia, the 2021 Budget showed a cut in allocation for LPPKN. Unfortunately, this reflects that the government is not committed to Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights as an essential healthcare service. While this is disheartening, I would continue to advocate for the government to work with social enterprises for an affordable and well-rounded solution, as was done in India, Kenya and many other countries. We need not reinvent the wheel but learn from their models whereby enterprises are supported to produce economical sanitary products and empower women in the production process, resulting in a win-win situation for all.
- Ensure access to water and sanitation — Clean and safe bathroom facilities for all, with serious needs to be met through government initiatives in rural areas.
I started volunteering with The Victress Support almost a year ago when I was drawn to their cause and how they were tackling a gap that intersected reproductive health and homelessness interventions in Malaysia, two causes close to my heart. Beyond that, I realised that I too had many unlearning to do when it came to talking about periods and all that came with it. While my privilege protected me from harm, many other girls experience dire consequences when periods are treated as a taboo. Menstrual health is a human right, and I hope that one day it won’t seem so radical to say that out loud.
- Projek Oh Bulan box: https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2019/11/24/in-kelantan-one-woman-embarks-on-a-journey-to-address-period-poverty/1812756 (Zuraidah Daut, via Malay Mail)
- Athena Empowerz: https://www.malaymail.com/news/life/2020/01/24/entrepreneur-fights-period-poverty-in-orang-asli-communities-with-eco-frien/1831092 (Picture courtesy of Anja Juliah Abu Bakar, via Malay Mail)
- The Victress Support: https://www.instagram.com/p/B2O-IQYpLgw/
- Orang Asli/Clean water: https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/clean-water-for-all-case-study-of-orang-asli (Global Peace Foundation, via UNU)
The Victress Support: https://www.instagram.com/p/B8TnFF6HEjg/