Basil Jarrett | Stopping the silent suffering
DESPITE MY long-established and well-known dislike for social media, I will admit that sometimes I get sucked down one or two Tik Tok rabbit holes, mindlessly strolling and scrolling until I catch myself and manage to swipe out. On one of my most recent guilty pleasure treks across the social media countryside, however, I came across something that left me asking two questions. The first was, “Why on earth would the algorithm send me something like this?” The second was, “What on earth is period poverty anyway?”
That question led me down another rabbit hole as I learnt more than I ever thought I needed to know about a woman’s body – specifically her menstrual cycle. Juvenile jokes about ‘cramping the vibes’ aside, I learnt that period poverty is a real thing, with real consequences for many of our women. And not just here in Jamaica. You see, this coming Sunday, May 28, is being celebrated as Menstrual Hygiene Day, in recognition of the challenges that some women face regarding access to menstrual products, education about menstruation, and period-friendly sanitation facilities.
WHAT IS PERIOD POVERTY?
The term ‘period poverty’ refers specifically to something that some women and many, if not most men, myself included, are utterly clueless about; specifically, the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and adequate facilities that many young girls and women face here in Jamaica. In my defence, I will blame my ignorance on the fact that many of our women who have been suffering from this malady have been doing so in silence, partly because of some of the backward sociocultural attitudes’ that society has towards this most basic and natural human function.
The simple fact is that numerous Jamaican women have to confront the harsh realities of period poverty daily – or should I say monthly. The high cost of menstrual hygiene products, coupled with limited financial resources and low incomes, means that each month, many of our women have to decide between food and their menstrual hygiene needs. Consider, for example, that the cost of the average box of pads is anywhere between $700-$1,000 per pack. Tampons are even more expensive. “Well, that’s not a lot of money,” you may say as you sip your chai latte, but consider that a pound of mixed chicken parts, a staple in many low-income households, costs $300-$400 per pound, and immediately you should see the dilemma. For many of our poor women, that is precisely the choice they have to make as the decision to purchase food or sanitary products becomes a heart-wrenching dilemma. If this surprises you, let me remind you that this is still Jamaica, and in many communities, it is not uncommon for persons to go to the corner shop every morning to buy a squeeze of toothpaste and a mackerel. And no, not a tin of mackerel, mind you, but a single, solitary mackerel from a can of two or three.
OTHER ADVERSE EFFECTS
To exacerbate the problem, inadequate sanitation facilities and the lack of clean running water in some communities further aggravate the challenges faced by women who are already burdened by poverty. When I have a drought-enforced water lock-off at night, my main grouse is usually that I will have to return to my Newcastle training days and shower and shave using a single cup of water. Spare a thought for the women for whom the lack of running water means certain menstrual hygiene options are now off the table, as they require clean running water to be viable. Right off the bat, that includes any and all reusable menstrual hygiene products.
But the effects of period poverty go well beyond the material hygiene issue. It also has implications for education and health. Poor or inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products leads to absenteeism among our schoolgirls who are forced to stay home during their periods. In order to cope, many young women resort to creative but less hygienic alternatives, such as rags, tissue paper, or newspapers, thereby exposing themselves to additional health risks, such as genital infections and reproductive health complications. This creates a long-term impact on their academic and educational prospects, perpetuating a cycle of inequality and poverty.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
To be fair, period poverty is not a uniquely Jamaican phenomenon. In many European countries, for example, specific legislation has been drafted to make a woman’s monthly period more manageable. In Spain, for example, legislation has been passed to implement paid menstrual leave for women, possibly extending it to five days if a woman is too sick to work.
So how do we in Jamaica address this issue in a similarly meaningful way, aside from the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day celebration? Well, for starters, we must begin to change our socio-culture attitudes around menstruation by fostering open conversations, especially among our men and boys, and dispel the stigma and shame associated with periods. It is imperative that we begin to foster awareness and understanding of the challenges that many of our women face by elevating this issue to a national agenda. This may mean incorporating menstrual health education into our school curricula, and empowering our girls to manage their periods safely and confidently.
That way, we can start to pave the way for more comprehensive solutions, such as more affordable and more accessible menstrual hygiene products. We may want to consider removing taxes on sanitary products, and implementing other initiatives that make them more affordable for marginalised communities. It is amazing that in this day and age, condoms and lubricants are available free of cost in any clinic or public health facility, yet pads and other menstrual hygiene products aren’t. I think that says a lot about what we prioritise as a society.
Addressing period poverty requires a collaborative effort from all of us – government bodies, NGOs, businesses, communities, and individuals. It is fundamentally a human- rights issue that requires immediate attention and action. By addressing the root causes, fostering awareness, and implementing comprehensive solutions, we can break the chains that bind women and girls in this cycle of inequality.
Major Basil Jarrett is a communications strategist and CEO of Artemis Consulting, a communications consulting firm specialising in crisis communications and reputation management. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.