Period Poverty in BhutanSurrounded by soaring Himalayan peaks in South Asia, Bhutan has been cited as a “development success story” by the World Bank. The country offers its people the option to reflect on whether or not they receive happiness in nine key areas. From psychological well-being to health, good governance and culture, leaders of the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” or Druk Yul, make an effort to display their interest in their people’s well-being. The country has a smoking ban and a negative carbon footprint, and outlets such as CNN claim it passes no law that is not in favor of its citizens’ holistic improvement. But things are not all perfect in Bhutan, as the country still struggles with issues such as period poverty.

What Is Period Poverty?

Period poverty refers to the inability to pay for menstrual products. Numerous countries impose additional taxes on period products, such as sales tax or value-added tax (VAT). Imported sanitary products from countries without a free trade agreement with Bhutan will have an added 30% import fee and a 5% sales tax. Bhutan treats tampons and sanitary pads as luxury products. However, products like condoms are categorized as “hygienic and pharmaceutical articles” and are zero-rated, meaning there is no applied duty or tax to the final price. Placing sanitary products in the same category could be a solution to period poverty.

The Effects of Period Poverty on Bhutanese Women

Lack of access to period products can cause various health problems, including toxic shock syndrome and urinary tract infections (UTIs). In 2017, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) collaborated on a study with the Ministry of Education, the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, the Religion and Health Project and the Ministry of Health to “assess the current issues facing Bhutanese schoolgirls and nuns during their menstrual period.”

Findings revealed that around 3% of schoolgirls do not wear any absorbent material during their periods. Additionally, only about half of these girls knew of any health implications associated with menstruation. Many people feel ashamed to seek menstrual products due to stigma and false information surrounding the topic. As a result, they may not know which product is best for their body, where to find it or how to use it properly. Period poverty in Bhutan often goes unnoticed due to a lack of advocates speaking out about it.

How Period Poverty Affects Girls’ Education

As of 2017, 8.2% of people in Bhutan lived below the national poverty line, with many residing in rural areas. Girls in these areas are highly susceptible to period poverty and taboos around menstruation. A study showed that, in both urban and rural areas, approximately 44.7% of schoolgirls claim they missed from one to four days per cycle. This can lead to a decrease in learning and lower academic performance in comparison to the girls’ male counterparts. A lack of education has strong links to poverty, creating a harmful cycle of persistent financial struggle.

Solutions Implemented So Far to Combat the Issue

Organizations such as JICA, UNICEF and Save the Children partnered with the Ministry of Education and Skills Development in Bhutan in 2020 to alleviate this issue by providing free sanitary products in schools.

The findings of the 2017 UNICEF study disclosed that “over half of schoolgirls…were unaware of [any] risk from UTIs.” In addition, “over…a quarter of schoolgirls [used] only water for cleaning sanitary materials,” when 91.9% used sanitary napkins meant for only one use. Pain, discomfort and fear of ridicule also contributed to school absenteeism. After the study, UNICEF created a menstrual hygiene management (MHM) program for schools. After the program, more than 80.6% of adolescent girls had a good knowledge of menstruation, compared to 37.9% of girls without the MHM program.

Due to this initiative, each school in Bhutan now must have a trained school health coordinator. The initiative helps to detect illness among pupils, refer them to medical services, offer basic first aid treatment and promote key hygiene behaviors. The country has also started to observe menstrual hygiene day, held on the 28th of May, to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic of menstruation and to work toward ending period poverty in Bhutan.

Bhutan Can Do More

Bhutan has taken significant steps to address its period poverty issue and improve the well-being of its women and girls. Collaborations between organizations like JICA, UNICEF and Save the Children, along with the Ministry of Education, have resulted in the provision of free sanitary products in schools, helping to alleviate the financial burden. Initiatives such as the menstrual hygiene management program have also led to increased knowledge and awareness about menstruation, empowering girls and reducing stigma. These efforts demonstrate Bhutan’s commitment to achieving gender equality and ensuring a brighter future for all its citizens.

– Camilla Sechi
Photo: Pixabay

Causes of Poverty in Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small Himalayan country of 750,000 people. Over one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. Ninety-six percent affected by the causes of poverty in Bhutan live in rural areas. The ones most impacted work outside the country’s modern economy, and include farmers, day laborers and small traders.

The Power of Nature in Bhutan Poverty

One cause of poverty in Bhutan cannot be controlled: the Himalayan landscape.

Natural disasters, such as floods and landslides, can wreak havoc on communities and ruin crops. Forces of nature can wipe out entire villages, forcing those already living in poverty to re-build their lives.

When weather conditions prevent a bountiful harvest, farmers do not have alternative options to financially recover. Farmers often don’t own enough productive land and livestock to gain financial security. Opportunities to generate cash income outside of agriculture are extremely limited, making farmers exclusively dependent on the success crops.  In rural areas, off-farm employment in rural areas is rare.

Rugged terrain also makes travel difficult for rural populations. A person may have to walk three hours to a few days to reach a highway or main road. These demanding journeys limit access to social and health services, markets, technology and education.

The Struggle of Large Families, Students and Laborers 

Other causes of poverty in Bhutan are due to family size, lack of education and limited jobs.

Large families with a high dependency ratio (children and adults who cannot work) experience more poverty in both urban and rural areas. As of 2004, 49 percent of families in the rural areas of Bhutan had six or more members. These families experience labor shortages when youth and working adults leave their villages for the country’s urban centers.

A student in Bhutan’s rural regions may have to walk two to three hours each way to access the nearest primary school. Because access to education is difficult and limited, the adult literacy rate and opportunities to gain productive skills in the rural areas of Bhutan remain low. As of 2004, less than half of the Bhutan’s rural population was literate.

For day laborers and small traders outside of Bhutan’s agriculture-based economy, low earnings are often not enough to overcome poverty. Even when laborers and traders work more than one job, they are often unable to earn enough to live consistently above the poverty line.

Reducing Poverty and Staying Happy  

Local government is working to address the causes of poverty in Bhutan and build long-term solutions and comprehensive development programs, especially in rural areas.

Despite the various causes of poverty in Bhutan, the country is well-known as one of the happiest countries in Asia. As Bhutan aims to overcome poverty, it carries the rich success of its famous priority: happiness.


Smriti Krishnan

Photo: Flickr