SEATTLE, Washington — Period poverty has been an invisible issue for years. Menstruation is a stigmatized subject. However, around 1.9 billion women and girls around the world currently menstruate. Millions of women and girls cannot manage their menstrual hygiene, leading to missed opportunities in education, work and life quality. However, the issue of period poverty is stigmatized and often goes unspoken. For example, both of the interviewees The Borgen Project interviewed had not heard of the term. Period poverty in Poland is no exception.
The Feminization of Poverty and Period Poverty
Diana Pearce, an American sociologist, first coined the term “feminization of poverty,” in 2011. She wrote a paper called “The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare”. A representative from the Kulczyk Foundation said, “there is no clear definition”. In fact, because of the ever-constant presence of poverty among women within the modern world, the term has many meanings.
In general, the feminization of poverty refers to the fact that poverty affects more women than men. Poor women are in generally worse situations than poor men. Women are at a greater risk of falling into poverty than men. “Single mothers with children,” those who are head of a household and women who are retired are far more likely to live in poverty.
Period poverty not only means women are more subjected to poverty than men but also women and girls lacking access to essential hygienic products and proper health education. This is especially true in regards to menstruation and sex. In 2018, 14% of women and girls, or one in five women, in Poland experienced period poverty. This means they lack the adequate financial means to purchase necessary hygienic products.
Additionally, because of the stigma surrounding period poverty in Poland, women and girls are often humiliated and excluded from society when it comes to their monthly menstrual cycle. Undeniably, the proportion of Poland’s poor population is largely women. This further contributes to period poverty in Poland.
Examining Period Poverty in Poland
There are two ways to examine poverty for women in Poland. One way is the macro-level, which correlates to the higher unemployment rate that affects women, complications returning to work after childbirth and lower incomes and lower pensions among women. The other is the micro-level, which pertains to household levels, duties and resources.
The macro-level is a result of economic transformations that women of families in poverty face. They work “to improve the living and financial situation of the entire family” while at the same time managing household finances and spending. The burden is greater on women as women are required to make these constant money-saving decisions and scour the market for essential daily products at the cheapest prices.
Women in Poland are apt to find additional income sources, such as seasonal jobs, illicit jobs or borrowing money from family and friends. Poland’s women in poverty must endure a life of perpetual uncertainty and stress. Attempting to “stay afloat”, the stigma of period poverty often clouds their lives.
At the micro-level, the characteristics of Poland’s women in poverty greatly differ from the problems that affect Poland’s poor men in poverty. Women in poverty face a significant amount of domestic and caretaking responsibilities, housework and household finance management. The effects are pressing, especially considering the child of a single mother or multiple children of another mother often “bear the social consequence of life in poverty.”
STigmas and the Cost of Menstrual Products
The Catholic Church has great influence in Poland and it holds great sway over deciding the reproductive lives of the women in Poland. Women have limited possibilities in terms of reliable sexual education, for instance. A representative of The Kulczyk Foundation, Katarzyna Bojko, spoke with The Borgen Project in an interview. She commented that Poland’s Catholic influence makes it feel embarrassing to talk about periods or sex, “because it [is]treated as taboo.”
Furthermore, “in big cities,” Bojko described, women’s hygienic products in Poland are “affordable and easily accessible.” But, the issue “starts in small villages” where Bojko noticed “a lack of personal hygienic products […] in the shops.” The Polish government has followed a 2007 EU directive and amended the Tampon Tax. This meant the nation reduced the value-added tax (VAT) on hygienic products from 8% to 5%. However, for many women in poverty, this was not enough.
The Way Forward
Founder and President of The Kulczyk Foundation, Dominika Kulczyck stated that the inability to access complete menstrual health and hygiene and basic human rights is “deeply unfair” to women and girls. Without these resources, Kulczyck continues, “women and girls cannot pursue full lives with dignity and confidence.” Since the organization’s creation in 2013, the Kulczyk Foundation has tackled several projects. It has provided grants to NGOs to fight period poverty, worked with media outlets to publish articles about menstruation to break cultural stigmas and operated educational workshops about menstruation. The organization has carried out international aid projects in 63 countries on 6 continents.
Instead of putting “conservative values in the foreground,” Bojko finalizes, “the Polish government should be more open-minded [and]think more about young people who are our future.” The world has a long way to go to eliminate period poverty. Countries like Poland are in a position to create change and alleviate some of the financial and social pressures on women and girls.