The painful reality of period poverty in Malaysia

“If people don’t have enough money to buy food, it means they don’t have the means to buy a pad either. But this connection is never made.”

Every month, 28-year-old Mira tears a strip of cloth from an old shirt, using it in place of a menstrual pad once her supply has run out.

Once it’s too soiled, which is every three hours, Mira, who lives in a seaside village in Sabah, washes it in the sea and reuses it.

“My mother taught me (how to manage my period). She told me what to do when I get my period and, how to take care of myself and not tell others,” she told FMT, adding that the family can only afford 20 menstrual pads for her to share with her mother and sister.

Mira’s story is not an isolated one. She is one of many girls and women who experience “period poverty” in Malaysia, which is the lack of access to menstrual products, knowledge on menstruation, or hygiene facilities.

Some girls and women, in their desperation, use coconut husks, banana leaves, and newspapers to replace sanitary products, exposing themselves to severe health risks and urinary tract infections, says Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) capacity building officer Hannah Reshma Jambunathan.

She said they have heard of many period poverty stories like Mira’s in Malaysia. It is a problem prevalent not only in Malaysia but in many countries.

Scotland has even made period products free for all women, to end cases of period poverty. Schools, colleges and universities there will also provide the products for free.

Fatimah al-Attas of International Islamic University Malaysia says different groups of people are impacted differently by period poverty in Malaysia.

“For example, the homeless do not have access to menstrual products but for students, the school toilets may not be clean or have proper bins in the cubicles, which makes changing pads difficult,” she said.

While there is no data on the period poverty situation in the country, Fatimah said she believes the numbers were high as many families were already struggling to even put food on the table.

“If people don’t have enough money to buy food, it means they don’t have the means to buy a pad either. But this connection is never made.”

Hannah said the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement restrictions have further hampered marginalised communities’ access to sanitary pads, which are often considered a “non-essential” product.

“This was reflected in many of the Covid-19 aid and outreach efforts which sought to provide families with ‘essentials’ such as food and water, but menstrual products were omitted.”

Nisha Sabanayagam, programme and operations manager for the All Women’s Action Society (Awam), said one of the issues surrounding period poverty was the stigma surrounding menstruation.

“There are girls in rural areas who don’t go to school because they are on their period. They don’t have sanitary pads and thus the blood stains their uniforms. They can’t bear the shame, so they skip school,” she said, noting that some girls missed school for up to a week, causing them to fall behind in lessons.

Nisha and Hannah called for awareness and education programmes on menstruation to be incorporated into the school curriculum, on top of making menstrual pads more easily available to students.

“This will help to normalise menstruation and end the perpetuation of shame and stigma, and teach our young girls not to feel ashamed of their bodies and biological processes.

“More research should also be encouraged to understand the severity of period poverty in Malaysia, in order to gather data and address the issue efficiently,” said Hannah.

Alisya, a teenage volunteer teaching sexuality education under Spot Malaysia, said many young girls lacked proper education on menstruation.

“It’s important for me and my peers to be empowered with the right knowledge,” said Alisya, who is also part of WAO’s Girl’s Takeover! Network.

She added that it was equally important for boys to be educated on the topic as well, to allow for more open discussions on periods in the future.