Addressing Period Poverty Will Expand Access to Health Care
Taking on the realities of period poverty helps young women, especially in developing nations, develop their full potential as adults. This means addressing the taboos surrounding menstruation and advancing education about puberty.
When visiting developing nations as CEO of Procter & Gamble, colleagues and I often discovered that the people we met lacked the opportunity to reach their full potential. In many cases, that would be due to a lack of adequate education as well as a lack of access to quality health care.
In some countries, we particularly discovered that many people didn’t understand menstruation and puberty in girls. As it turns out, they were hardly alone. A report by Always, Procter & Gamble’s leading menstrual care brand, and WASH United found that period shame, taboos, and misinformation prevail around the world.
My wife and I poignantly witnessed this once when visiting a Hindu temple in Bali. A sign read, “If you’re a woman that’s menstruating, you’re not allowed in the temple.”
Looking back in history, beliefs existed in the Christian Bible or Jewish Torah about a lack of cleanliness in menstruation. A lot of those customs probably made sense at the time they were created. But they don’t make sense today, and they limit opportunities for women and girls.
In some countries, we particularly discovered that many people didn’t understand menstruation and puberty in girls. As it turns out, they were hardly alone.
In fact, history and culture is the greatest barrier to more collaboration to improve women’s health in general and “period poverty” in particular. It’s hard to tell someone who has believed something for their entire life, or their family has adhered to a practice for generations, that their tradition is no longer relevant.
I am not criticizing them and their societies, but traditions may stand in the way of the greater development of their people.
Of course, traditions often are difficult to overcome. That’s why Procter & Gamble teaches about puberty and menstruation when our employees go into communities in some nations. We have reached more than 15 million people worldwide in that education. (We also provide our menstrual products – Whisper, Always, and Tampax – to women and girls who lack access to them in their nations.)
Learning about menstruation is important for a number of reasons, but particularly for the realities of period poverty. In Nigeria, we found that middle school girls were dropping out of school. Having reached puberty, they didn’t want the embarrassment of going to class while menstruating. They would stay out of school for a week every month. It doesn’t take long to basically drop out when you stay at home for a week each month.
You might ask whether teaching about menstruation and distributing menstrual products is philanthropy or good business. My answer is it’s both, if you’re the Procter & Gamble Company and your purpose is to improve the lives of the world’s consumers. You can’t separate philanthropy from good business practice.
It’s philanthropy because it’s the right thing to do for girls, to allow them to be educated, escape the realities of period poverty, and become full contributors to their societies. But it’s also good business practice. Those young girls eventually become members of the economy by gaining an education.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it is the role of a multinational company or a government to change the mores of a society or to impose Western values on the rest of the world. But when a society is ready to change those mores, it certainly is our role to help them change and show them how to do it safely and appropriately. That includes learning about menstruation, removing the stigma around periods, and improving puberty education.
Addressing period poverty and eliminating the taboos around menstruation is an important way to expand access to health care for women.
Of course, period poverty is a reality in the United States, too. Always found in a survey that almost 20 percent of U.S. girls have missed school because they lack access to period products. For that reason, Always recently donated more than 30 million period products in the United States.
That said, I am not in favor of making menstrual products free, like Scotland is doing, or making the products tax-free, as CVS is doing in some states. You retard innovation by taking the production and distribution of menstruation products out of the private sector.
If you start providing or subsidizing products via the government, you’re not going to have innovation. For one thing, there is no profit motive in government so it can’t move as fast as a business in creating something new.
But I am encouraged that overcoming period poverty is a bipartisan concern. Democrats and Republicans alike have supported the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues’ championing of this cause.
Addressing period poverty and eliminating the taboos around menstruation is an important way to expand access to health care for women. As that happens, more people in more countries will have opportunities to reach their full potential.