Surrounded 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