Every day around the world, 800 million people are menstruating. Millions of them are unable to afford period products or manage their menstruation safely due to a lack of proper handwashing or sanitation facilities, or lack of access to period products. On top of this, people are not often taught about menstruation sufficiently and are even shamed for their natural bodily functions.
Period poverty persists in the world. It’s not just a problem that exists in low and middle-income countries. Satisfying a human’s basic physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, and sleep is essential to their health and well-being. The ability to experience a dignified and safe, hygienic period should also be considered essential for a human’s experience.
At Ruby Cup, our mission has been to eliminate period poverty from day one. When you make the choice to move towards a zero-waste period by choosing a sustainable, reusable period product, you’re not only saving money and protecting the planet (check out exactly how much with our impact calculator), you’re also helping others around the world experience a happier, more dignified period.
With every Ruby Cup you purchase, you donate another one to someone without safe access to menstrual products or proper sanitation and hygiene facilities. Make a difference in someone’s life and shop Ruby Cup now.
What is period poverty?
Period poverty is not only a lack of access to menstrual products. It also includes a lack of education and communication about menstruation as well as access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and even handwashing or waste management facilities.
The World Bank found that “at least 500 million women and girls around the world are affected by a lack of adequate menstrual hygiene management (MHM) facilities.” Menstrual health includes all the factors surrounding and associated with menstruation, i.e.:
- Physiological factors
- Socio-political factors
- Environmental perspectives.
The UN states that worldwide, there are 4.2 billion people that lack safely managed sanitation. In 2016, 2 in 5 healthcare facilities had no soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub. This lack of sanitation management can cause great repercussions in the lives of people who have periods - infection, psychological or physical discomfort, absenteeism from school and much more.
Period poverty around the world
Many people equate period poverty with lower-income countries. The truth is that period poverty exists in countries with high GDPs as well.
In this article, we calculated the cost of period products in various countries. Using our own menstrual health cost index, we were able to work out the average cost of menstrual products in Euros, comparing some high, low, and middle-income countries. What we discovered, surprisingly, is that these products are most unaffordable in low and middle-income countries.
We found that although prices for a pad, for example, were lower in countries like Uganda, Kenya and Vietnam (around €0.05), when compared in relation to the GDP, the price percentage per capita makes up a much larger portion. So in Switzerland, which has the highest price for a pad at €0.36, a yearly supply would correspond to about 0.04% of the Swiss GDP per capita. In Kenya, this same number equates to 1.1% and in Uganda 3.1%. In countries where the income is much lower, people are then forced to spend much more of what they make on menstrual products. It’s simply not fair. It’s period inequality.
The cost of period poverty
The toll of period poverty can be devastating for those who menstruate. From mental health issues like depression or anxiety, to unhygienic and even dangerous health practices for dealing with menstruation, not having access to the knowledge or facilities to deal with monthly menses can have a powerful and exponential effect.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an effect on period poverty worldwide. In a study from 2020, over half of the people surveyed said they had less money to buy menstrual products due to the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has also disrupted access to products where donations were being made or free menstrual products were being distributed. Supply chain issues have caused price increases in products as well.
Speaking for ourselves, our donation process of Ruby Cups and our menstrual health education workshops had to be reconsidered and adapted to the global pandemic. Planned group meetings were replaced with door-to-door follow-ups in order to make sure that each person who had recently received a Ruby Cup could get all of the in-depth and direct support they needed.
Period dignity and mental health impacts
Not being able to afford menstrual products can cause stress and discomfort, leading to negative mental health impacts, as was discovered in this study on college-aged students in the United States.
There is also shame or stigma around menstruation in many countries. In Bangladesh, for example, this survey on hygiene found that girls and women were also stigmatized while they were menstruating: being forbidden from activities such as cooking or going out or even from touching certain things. And in Nepal, Chhaupadi, even though prohibited by law, is still practiced in rural areas, keeping people on their periods from sleeping at home or eating nutrient-rich foods. These types of rules can be internalized and make young people feel “less than” or that there is something wrong with them.
This is not just a problem that exists in low-income countries. In a study in the United States, 70% of teens said they were especially self-conscious of their periods in a school environment and 65% didn’t want to be at school when menstruating. Over 80% said they hide their period products when walking out of class to go to the bathroom.
These harmful attitudes towards menstruation are a big barrier to creating gender equality and allowing people to live with their periods with dignity.
Health risks of period poverty
Lack of access to menstrual products and knowledge about how to deal with menstruation could also be harmful in terms of health. In a study on US teens, over half said they used a product for longer than the recommended time. We already know that leaving a high-absorbency tampon in for too long can cause a very rare but life-threatening condition known as toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Although the risk is low, leaving a tampon in for a longer than usual length of time could increase this risk.
In other countries, people affected by period poverty often turn to poor quality or unhygienic substitutes for menstrual products - think cloth or even mud. These are ineffective and could cause health risks too.
Some turn to selling sex in direct exchange for period products or money to buy period products. One report from 2016 found that 2 out of 3 menstrual pad users in Kenya get them from sexual partners. And another study, that the practice of engaging in transactional sex for menstrual pads is used amongst Western Kenyan girls aged 15 or younger.
This leads to completely new levels of problems, including increased risks of STDs, HIV, and unwanted pregnancies.
Lack of communication and education about menstruation
As mentioned earlier, the lack of access to education about menstruation also affects those who menstruate. When teenagers are taught more about the biology of frogs than their own anatomy, you know there is a problem.
In a national hygiene survey in Bangladesh, between 36-42% of adolescent girls and women knew or heard about menstruation at the time of their first period. In another study in the US, 40% of teens said they were confused and unprepared for their first period.
The lack of education surrounding menstruation can perpetuate the type of shaming and stigmatization mentioned earlier. When people have a limited understanding of something, a typical reaction is to avoid discussions or even ignoring the topic altogether.
The more education we can provide in schools surrounding menstruation, the better we’ll be able to cope and fight period poverty.
Gender inequality and period poverty
When the needs of people who menstruate go unaccounted for, it creates an enormous problem in regards to gender equality. In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez explores the lack of involving women in design choices from the availability of public bathrooms to designing parks and leisure spaces.
Ignoring the needs of half of the population is insensitive and can result in safety and security issues. Criado-Perez gives an example where women working in fields would not relieve themselves the entire working day because of the lack of bathrooms and the fear that they could be bothered or assaulted in some way.
The potentially biggest inequality that results from access to safe menstrual options is connected to schooling. The Journal of Global Health Reports describes the trajectory a person can take when they lack access to period products. If a young person doesn’t have the proper access to safe menstrual products, they will likely stay home from school.
In the hygiene study in Bangladesh mentioned earlier, 40% of girls surveyed reported they missed school for a median of 3 days a month because of menstruation. In a 2021 survey conducted on US teens, 67% said they missed school due to not having the menstrual products they needed. This is two-thirds of young people who can’t go to school because they’re menstruating. In the same survey, 38% said they often or sometimes cannot do their best school work due to a lack of access to period products.
Staying home from school results in lower grades and can lead to disinterest in school and even dropping out. Not going to school means these young people will either start working low-level jobs or begin doing unpaid work at home. This type of low-level work is usually not well paid and results in further inequality.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that can only be undone by mindfully and ruthlessly fighting period poverty by providing sustainable period options and education to wider societies.
The period cup that impacts lives
At Ruby Cup, we want to make a difference. When we started the company in 2011, the original business model incorporated the idea of fighting period poverty with every move. Every purchase of a Ruby Cup involves a donation of another Ruby Cup to someone without safe access to menstrual products.
To fight period poverty properly, we made sure we knew as much about the topic as we could to carry out our mission effectively. We combed through existing studies and information already out there to ensure a healthy donation process and long-term impact.
We didn’t want to just donate products and hope for the best. Education and following up are key. As we’ve learned about period poverty, it’s not just the unavailability of menstrual products, but the lack of knowledge on how to deal with menstruation and the lack of WASH infrastructure and facilities.
For this reason, we knew it was critical to create a network of partners, local organizations and locally-based Ruby Cup ambassadors and trainers that would facilitate a long-lasting program and ensure that the donation process had longevity.
Before we even make the donation, we have to make sure that the community is on board with the idea. We involve the entire community in our Buy One Give One program. Community leaders, teachers and parents are included as much as possible in the program to provide support along the way. We provide workshops about human anatomy so that the people in these communities understand what’s happening in their bodies during menstruation.
We then give them the choice to take a cup home with them or not - it’s completely up to them. We also provide many follow-up sessions so we can answer any questions anyone has and make sure there are trusted mentors available. A solid support system is crucial in creating a space where they can then ask questions to people they already know and trust.
Buying a Ruby Cup not only helps fight period poverty, but it also helps fight the negative impact on the environment. Every year, millions of disposable products are sent to landfills where they will take years to decompose and because many of these products - especially menstrual pads, wrappers and tampon applicators - contain plastic, these also break down into potentially dangerous microplastics. By purchasing a Ruby Cup which can last up to 10 years, you’re not only saving money but contributing to having a zero waste period.
From period poverty to period pride
Ruby Cup wouldn’t be able to challenge and work on eliminating period poverty without customers like you who believe in raising their voices for change in the world. By making more informed decisions through mindful consumption and understanding that one menstrual cup can change a life by providing a quality, sustainable and long-term option to dealing with menstruation, you make it possible to champion this change.
When people with periods are able to access safe, effective period solutions, they are more likely to continue with school and other educational opportunities and ultimately contribute to the wider community.
This is why Ruby Cup’s mission is to ensure that every person who menstruates has access to what they need to menstruate safely and with dignity, regardless of their personal circumstances. Our goal is a world where no one is held back because of their period.
At Ruby Cup, we believe a period should end a sentence and not someone’s day.
When you buy a cup, you give a cup. Your purchase ensures a happy, freer period for yourself and someone without access to safe menstrual options. Make a difference in someone’s life and shop Ruby Cup now.