KUALA LUMPUR – It may not be common knowledge but there are female students in Malaysia who skip school when they have their monthly period or menstruation simply because their parents cannot afford to buy sanitary pads for them.
Several local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have come across this situation whilst carrying out community programmes in the interior areas of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as in Orang Asli settlements in the peninsula.
However, social workers have also been seeing this issue of “period poverty” existing among the urban poor communities, particularly since last year after the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation and many people’s livelihoods were affected due to the enforcement of movement controls.
Period poverty is a global issue affecting communities that do not have access to safe, hygienic menstrual products, which often result in them missing school, as well as job opportunities.
Confusion over period poverty
In 2018, the World Bank stated that an estimated 500 million women and girls all over the world lack adequate basic facilities for menstrual hygiene management.
While period poverty exists in Malaysia, the matter is not openly discussed, resulting in the absence of data on the actual number of people facing this issue.
Apart from that, there is also much confusion about what period poverty is all about, with most people looking at it from one angle, namely the inability to buy menstrual products.
However, according to International Islamic University Malaysia sociologist Dr Sh Fatimah Alzahrah Syed Hussien, period poverty, in actual fact, covers more complex aspects as well, particularly in terms of ensuring safe, hygienic and dignified menstrual management.
She said in resolving the issue of period poverty, four basic elements have to be addressed, namely access to sanitary products, menstrual knowledge and education, access to sanitary infrastructure, and privacy to change sanitary pads.
“The confusion over period poverty must be cleared because if we are not serious about addressing this issue, it will result in a health crisis among women which will have adverse effects on their daily lives,” she told Bernama.
Sh Fatimah Alzahrah, who is currently conducting a study on period poverty among youths, said the space for discussions on this issue is limited as the stigma surrounding menstruation persists in society.
“This is why many girls and women still don’t know how to manage their menstruation properly,” she said, adding that the long-term effects of improper period management are health problems caused by bacterial infections.
Step up monitoring
Sh Fatimah Alzahrah, who is also an advisor to PeduliMerah – a Malaysian period poverty advocacy group comprising NGOs and researchers – said the government should collect official data to determine the number of people who are affected by period poverty so that efforts can be made to address the issue.
“… during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were affected because of the Movement Control Order. Through (our) observations at the (various) low-cost people’s housing projects (PPR), there was an increase in requests for menstrual products during the height of the pandemic,” she said.
Many countries have taken steps to overcome period poverty, she said. Pointing to Britain, she said in 2019 it allocated two million pounds (RM10.7 million) to organisations striving to end period poverty globally. Another 250,000 pounds (RM1.3 million) has also been allocated to government departments, charities and private enterprises to tackle the issue.
Scotland, meanwhile, provides free access to sanitary products to all women, thus enabling it to overcome period poverty effectively. France has reduced the sales tax on menstrual products while New Zealand provides free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
Sh Fatimah Alzahrah also said the government should consider teaching schoolchildren at all levels about menstruation in order to encourage positive discussions on this topic, as well as remove the stigma attached to it and enable them to realise that the menstrual cycle is a natural process.
She also urged the authorities to monitor schools and public places to find out if they are equipped with the facilities to enable girls and women to manage their periods properly.
Meanwhile, three friends Fitriyati Bakri, 26, Maisarah Razali, 29, and Amir Junaidi, 32 – who are alumni of MYCorps, a youth voluntary body under the Ministry of Youth and Sports – have teamed up under an initiative known as BUNGA Pads to provide free reusable sanitary towels to needy groups, particularly in remote places and islands.
The initiative, implemented in 2019 with the support of NGOs, has been receiving encouraging response.
The idea for BUNGA Pads came about after Fitriyati participated in a two-month-long community development mission in Satkhira, Bangladesh in 2017 to help reduce school absenteeism among girls there due to period poverty, as well as provide needy single mothers an opportunity to earn an income by sewing reusable sanitary pads.
Fitriyati told Bernama she found it distressing that period poverty was an issue in several remote areas and islands in her home state, Sabah.
“Believe me, it doesn’t only exist in countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and India but also among female students living in Orang Asli villages and in the interior parts of Sabah and Sarawak,” she said.
She said the period poverty experienced by villagers in Pulau Mabul and Pulau Omadal in Sabah was not only limited to constraints in purchasing sanitary towels but also included lack of knowledge on the menstrual cycle, access to sanitary infrastructure and privacy.
“In Pulau Mabul, for example, the people have no knowledge on what menstruation is all about. There are also no toilets there and in some areas, they have to buy water in order to bathe.
“The schoolgirls from the island don’t go to school when they have their period as their parents don’t have the money to buy them sanitary pads,” she said.
Free sanitary pads
Fitriyati said the BUNGA Pads initiative focuses on three areas, namely education, environment and women empowerment.
“Our efforts are aimed at educating girls to manage their menstruation properly and we stress on personal hygiene and reproductive health education,” she said.
The initiative’s other mission is to produce sanitary products that are safer and more environmentally friendly. Currently, the reusable pads are being sewn by single mothers from the B40 group.
Fitriyati said they also hope to start a vocational school specialising in tailoring to help B40 householders and school dropouts.
Another organisation that is extending a helping hand to girls and women affected by period poverty is Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (Yadim) which is providing free sanitary pads to the urban poor through its YADIMart supermarkets.
Yadim chief executive officer Tuan Kamarul Arief Tuan Soh said period poverty is real and it is something people in the lower-income groups are experiencing.
He said YADIMart, apart from being a business entity, was also established for charitable purposes.
“For us, the food bank project will be a part of our identity. And, we don’t only place food items there but also non-food essentials such as sanitary towels,” he said.