This article is part of IPS coverage of Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated on May 28.
– Menstrual hygiene management is elusive for millions of poor women and girls in Latin America, who suffer because their living conditions make it difficult or impossible for them to access resources and services that could make menstruation a normal part of life .
“When my period comes, I miss three or four days of class. My family cannot afford the sanitary pads my sister and I need. We use cloths for the blood, although it gives me an uncomfortable rash,” says Omaira*, a 15-year-old high school student.
From her poor neighborhood of Brisas del Sur, in Ciudad Guayana, 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 service here to treat it.”
In Venezuela, “one in four women lack menstrual hygiene products and improvise unhygienic alternatives, such as old clothes, clothes, cardboard or toilet paper to make sanitary napkins,” activist Natasha Saturno of the Solidarity Action NGO, tells IPS.
“The big problem with these improvised products is that they can cause discomfort and embarrassment at best, and at worst infections that endanger their health,” said Saturno, director of enforceability of rights at the NGO that runs programs for health support and documentation. and surveys.
Universal problem, integrated approach
Is this a local, focused problem? Not at all: “On any given day, more than 300 million women worldwide menstruate. In total, an estimated 500 million people lack access to menstrual products and adequate menstrual hygiene management (MHM) facilities,” says a World Bank study.
“Today more than ever we need to give visibility to the plight of women and girls who lack access to and education about menstrual hygiene. Communication makes all the difference,” said Hugo González, representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Peru.
UNFPA says there is broad agreement on what girls and women need for good menstrual health, stating that comprehensive approaches that combine education with infrastructure and with products and efforts to combat stigma are most successful in achieving good menstrual health. menstrual health and hygiene.
The essential elements are: safe, acceptable and reliable supplies to control menstruation; privacy for changing materials; safe and private washing facilities; and information to make the right decisions.
UNFPA’s theme this year for International Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated on May 28 each year, is “Making Menstruation a Normal Fact of Life by 2030”, the target date for compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the international community at the United Nations.
The pink tax
Nine of the region’s 31 countries consider menstrual hygiene products essential, making them exempt from value-added tax or reduced VAT, according to Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s “Sexist Taxes in Latin America” study.
In 2018, following a “Period Duty Free” campaign, Colombia became the first country in the Americas to eliminate the 16 percent VAT 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 were held against the imposition of VAT on menstrual products – Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. Other countries have reduced VAT, such as Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, while in Brazil the VAT varies by state and averages 7 percent.
The so-called “pink tax” obviously affects the price of menstrual hygiene products such as disposable and reusable pads and menstrual cups, becoming a particular burden in countries with high inflation and depreciated currencies, such as Argentina and Venezuela.
According to 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 nearly two dollars in Costa Rica.
“It’s an important problem,” emphasizes Saturno, “in a country like Venezuela, where the majority of the population lives in poverty and the minimum wage – although it has been increased by some allowances – is still only $5 a month.”
Hostile environment, scarce education
“If you often can’t buy sanitary towels, that’s the least of the problems. The worst part is the embarrassment you feel when you go to work and the cloth doesn’t keep your clothes blood-free, or you catch an infection,” says Nancy*, who at age 45 has worked in numerous informal sectors. professions and crafts in Caracas, says IPS.
“Poverty causes women and teenage girls to miss days of high school or work because they don’t have the supplies they need when they menstruate. It becomes a vicious cycle, as their academic or job performance is compromised, hindering their opportunities to develop their full potential and earn a better income.” — Natasha Saturno
The mother of four youngsters lives in Gramoven, a poor neighborhood in the northwest of the capital. Her two unmarried daughters, ages 18 and 22, have had experiences similar to Nancy on the way to school, in the neighborhood, on the bus, and on the subway.
“The thing is, menstruation is not seen as something natural, boys and men see it as something dirty, at work sometimes they don’t understand that if you’re in pain, you should stay home,” said Nancy. “And if you work for yourself, you have to go out anyway, because if you don’t go out, no money comes in.”
Saturno says that “poverty causes women and adolescent girls to miss days of high school or work because they don’t have the supplies they need when they menstruate.”
“It becomes a vicious cycle as their academic or job performance is affected, hindering their chances of developing their full potential and earning a better income,” she adds.
But the problem “goes far beyond materials, it doesn’t stop just because someone gets the products; it includes education and decent working conditions for women,” says psychologist Carolina Ramírez, who heads the educational NGO Menstruating Princesses in the Colombian city of Medellín.
For this reason, “we do not use the term ‘menstrual poverty’ and speak instead of menstrual dignity, justifying the need for society, schools, workplaces and states to promote menstrual education and combat illiteracy in that area”, says Ramirez.
As an illustration, she cites the widespread rejection of the use of tampons and cups “because of the age-old taboo that the vulva should not be touched, that the vagina should not be looked at”, in addition to the fact that many areas and communities in Latin American countries not only have no space or tools to sterilize products, but often also no clean water.
A concern expressed by both Saturno and Ramírez is the high vulnerability of migrant women in the region – which has received, for example, a flood of six million people from Venezuela in the past 10 years – in terms of menstrual and general health, as well as safety.
Another worrying problem is the women in most Latin American prisons who are unable to provide adequate menstrual hygiene due to lack of access to disposable products or the ability to sterilize reusable supplies.
“Greater efforts are needed across the region 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 the privacy of those interviewed.