This article is part of the IPS coverage of Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated on May 28th.
– Menstrual hygiene is difficult to achieve for millions of poor women and girls in Latin America. They suffer because their living conditions make it difficult or impossible for them to access resources and services that could make menstruation an easy, normal part of life.
“When my period comes, I miss classes for three or four days. My family cannot afford to buy the sanitary napkins my sister and I need. We use wipes for the blood, although it gives me a nasty rash,” says Omaira*, a 15-year-old high school student.
From her low-income neighborhood of Brisas del Sur in Ciudad Guiana, 500 kilometers southeast of Caracas, she speaks to IPS by phone: “We can’t buy pills to relieve our pain either. And my period is irregular, it doesn’t come every month, but there is no medical care here that I can treat.”
In Venezuela, “one in four women does not have any menstrual hygiene products and improvises unsanitary alternatives such as old clothes, towels, cardboard or toilet paper to make pads that serve as sanitary napkins,” says activist Natasha Saturno of the NGO Solidarity Action, tells IPS.
“The big problem with these improvised products is that they can, at best, cause discomfort and embarrassment, and at worst, infections that affect their health,” says Saturno, director of rights enforcement at the NGO that runs health aid and documentation programs conducts and surveys.
Universal problem, comprehensive approach
Is it a local, focused problem? Not at all: “More than 300 million women around the world menstruate every day. Overall, an estimated 500 million people lack access to menstrual products and adequate menstrual hygiene management (MHM) facilities,” according to a World Bank study.
“Today, more than ever, we need to make visible the situation of women and girls who do not have access to and education about menstrual hygiene. Communication makes the difference,” said Hugo González, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Peru.
According to UNFPA, there is broad agreement on what girls and women need for good menstrual health, arguing that comprehensive approaches that combine education with infrastructure and products and efforts to combat stigma are most successful in achieving good menstrual health and hygiene .
The essential elements are: safe, acceptable and reliable aids to control menstruation; privacy for material change; secure and private laundry facilities; and information to make appropriate decisions.
This year’s UNFPA motto for International Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated on May 28 each year, is: “Make menstruation a normal fact by 2030”, the target date for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the international community development (SDGs). United Nations.
The pink tax
According to the study “Sexist Taxes in Latin America” by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, nine out of 31 countries in the region consider menstrual hygiene products to be indispensable and are therefore exempt from VAT or reduced VAT.
In 2018, following a campaign for “tax-free menstruation”, Colombia became the first country in America to abolish sales tax (16 percent) on menstrual hygiene products. Neighboring Venezuela still charges 16 percent VAT, and Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay charge between 18 and 22 percent VAT on such products.
Colombia was joined by Ecuador, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico – where street demonstrations took place against VAT collection on menstrual products – Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. Other countries such as Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay and Peru have reduced sales tax, while in Brazil sales tax varies between states, averaging 7 percent.
The so-called “pink tax” obviously affects the price of menstrual hygiene products such as disposable and reusable sanitary napkins and menstrual cups, which is particularly onerous in countries with high inflation and devalued currencies like Argentina and Venezuela.
Based on the average price of the cheapest brands, ten disposable sanitary napkins can cost just under a dollar in Mexico, $1.50 in Argentina or Brazil, $1.60 in Colombia, Peru or Venezuela, and almost two dollars in Costa Rica.
“It’s a big problem,” Saturno points out, “in a country like Venezuela, where the majority of the population lives in poverty and the minimum wage — although it’s been raised with some grants — is still just $5 a month.”
Hostile environment, hardly any education
“If you often can’t buy sanitary napkins, that’s the smallest problem. “The worst thing is the embarrassment you feel when you go to work and the cloth doesn’t keep your clothes blood-free, or when you catch an infection,” says Nancy*, who at the age of 45 works on many occasions in the informal sector has worked occupations and trades in Caracas, IPS said.
“Poverty causes women and adolescent girls to miss secondary school or work because they do not have the supplies they need during their menstrual period. A vicious cycle is created as their academic or professional performance is compromised and their chances to reach their full potential and earn a better income are compromised.” — Natasha Saturno
The mother of four young people lives in Gramoven, a slum in the northwest of the capital. Her two unmarried daughters, ages 18 and 22, have had experiences similar to Nancy’s on their way to school, in the neighborhood, on the bus, and on the subway.
“The thing is, periods aren’t seen as something natural, boys and men see them as dirty, at work they sometimes don’t understand that if you’re in pain, you have to stay home,” Nancy said. “And when you’re working for yourself, you definitely have to get out because if you don’t go out, no money comes in.”
Saturno says that “poverty causes women and adolescent girls to miss days of secondary school or work because they do not have the necessary supplies they need during their menstrual periods.”
“It creates a vicious cycle because their academic or professional performance is affected and their chances to reach their full potential and earn a better income are impacted,” she adds.
But the problem “goes well beyond the materials, it doesn’t end just because someone receives the products; This includes education and decent working conditions for women,” psychologist Carolina Ramírez, head of the educational NGO Menstruating Princesses in the Colombian city of Medellín, told IPS.
For this reason, “we do not use the term ‘menstrual poverty’ and instead speak of menstrual dignity and affirm the need for society, schools, workplaces and states to promote education about menstruation and to combat illiteracy in this area,” says Ramírez.
To illustrate, she cites the widespread reluctance to use tampons and cups “because of the old taboo that the vulva should not be touched, that the vagina should not be looked at” and the fact that many areas and communities in Latin American countries are lacking It is not only about rooms or tools for sterilizing products, but also often about clean water.
One concern expressed by Saturno and Ramírez is the great vulnerability of female migrants in the region — which has received a flood of six million people from Venezuela over the past decade, for example — in terms of menstruation and general health security.
Another worrying problem is the women in most Latin American prisons who are unable to maintain proper menstrual hygiene due to lack of access to single-use products or the ability to sterilize reusable supplies.
Across the region, “greater efforts are needed to break taboos that violate fundamental rights to health, education, work and freedom of movement so that menstruation can be a stress-free human experience,” says Ramírez.
*Names have been changed to protect interviewee privacy.