Should we provide free period products?

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Parliamentarians Ts.Munkhtsetseg, Ch.Undram and M.Oyunchimeg have raised the issue of legalizing the provision of free period products to girls and women, which has become a topic of discussion among netizens. Some people oppose that this is a form of welfare policy and that it cannot reach the target group, while many proponents believe that addressing this issue will have a significant impact on promoting human rights and creating a favorable learning environment for girls.

In Mongolia, it is necessary to raise our voices for the rights of girls and take action to protect their rights. In fact, it is true that some herder households in remote soums, as well as low-income citizens, are unable to afford period products. For instance, a girl living in a rural town was beaten by her dormitory teacher for making period pads with her blanket. There are many other tragic cases related to period products. In rural areas, many girls drop out of school or skip school during their menstruation because they can’t afford to buy tampons, pads or reusable period products. This is seen as a serious human rights violation.

The Global Menstrual Collective defines menstrual health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity in relation to the menstrual cycle”. It notes that people should have access to information about menstruation, life changes, and hygiene practices; the ability to care for themselves during menstruation; access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services; the ability to receive a diagnosis for menstrual cycle disorders; access to healthcare; a positive and supportive environment in which to make informed decisions; and the ability to participate in all aspects of life such as going to work and school.

However, all these basic rights of girls and women have not been fully established in Mongolia because it is estimated that one in three Mongolians lives in poverty. The UK is much more advanced than Mongolia but about 10 percent of girls in the UK were found unable to afford period products; 15 percent had struggled to afford them; and 19 percent had changed to a less suitable product because of the cost, according to research. There is no research on this in Mongolia but many are aware of what the current financial capacity of citizens is like. This suggests that girls’ rights are being violated.

Lawmaker Ch.Undram commented that according to a study, there are many girls in Mongolia who are unable to attend school without taking a leave of absence every month because of their period. She said she would work to resolve the issue.

Of course, some citizens may be protesting the idea to distribute period products free of charge because the government often fails to properly implement its decisions. In response, legislator Ts.Munkhtsetseg tweeted, “I understand the position of those who criticize and oppose it. Most of these people are worried that it will become a business of the state. They also fear that this regulation will not serve the target group and that the public money could be used for corruption and personal gains. Our bitter history shows that many government tender selections had been made corrupt in the past, derailing from their original purposes. Therefore, we will study and implement effective solutions to avoid such a situation.”

On the other hand, some netizens believe that this is a “small issue” and does not need to be legalized. It should be noted that women lawmakers did not initiate anything that did not exist. In other words, some countries and regions around the world, including New Zealand and Scotland, legalized the free provision of feminine hygiene products, considering that period poverty should be legally resolved.

Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all by approving the Period Products Bill in 2020. The Scottish government provides 5.2 million GBP funding to support this. In accordance with the law, tampons, pads and some reusable period products are made available in schools, colleges and universities in Scotland. In some places, including a number of pubs and restaurants, feminine hygiene products are provided free of charge by the owners.

They defined that period poverty is when those on low incomes cannot afford, or access, suitable period products. Generally, it is a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or a combination of these. It affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide, according to BMC Women’s Health’s study. Period poverty causes physical, mental, and emotional challenges. It can make people feel ashamed of menstruating and the stigma surrounding periods prevents individuals from talking about it.

In addition to period poverty, the Scottish law tackles period stigma. Researchers say this is particularly an issue for young girls. It found that 71 percent of 14 to 21-year-olds felt embarrassed buying period products in Scotland. They also estimated that almost half of girls surveyed have missed school because of their period.

Moreover, when a leading sanitary product company raised prices by 8 percent in South Korea in 2016, low-income girls and women flooded social media with stories about how they cannot afford to buy pads every month – resorting instead to missing school or using makeshift products. The South Korean government announced that it would provide young women with pads – a basic necessity – for free. At that time, “insole girls” also began to circulate in the media. It referred to girls who were using insoles of sneakers instead of pads as they could not afford period products. Since then, charities and nonprofit organizations began to distribute free period products, such as pads, underwear and cosmetics for girls. Today, girls in the country receive a monthly voucher worth 10,500 KRW for period products.

It is very difficult for girls to suddenly have their period during class. In this regard, in 2016, 25 schools in New York City also dispensed free tampons and pads to students. The event helped people understand the importance of this monthly need of women. This measure influenced most elementary schools around the world to support the distribution of free pads for girls as it can help female students focus on their learning and feel comfortable during class.

Just recently, Japan provided one-time food aid to its students as many of them have lost their part-time jobs. For girls, the inclusion of feminine hygiene products wrapped in brown paper in the food aid was hailed as “the greatest human rights sentiment.”

These countries have proven that supplies of feminine hygiene products are not a small issue, as some have said. In this case, we do not have to resist. On one hand, there is no need to urgently approve the issue of free distribution of period products in a country like ours, which has a low level of development, political instability and low household income. Some researchers say that it is better to focus on creating more jobs, improving living conditions, and increasing salaries and pensions right now. However, government care should not be limited to the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.

As of December 2021, there are 240,000 girls aged between 10 and 19 in Mongolia. Assuming that a girl spends an average of 10,000 MNT on tampons and pads every month, this would require 24 billion MNT a year. If it is not possible to reflect such an amount of money in the state budget, women lawmakers view that for starters, it is necessary to provide tampons, pads and other period products to girls who live on the outskirts of the city and place them at local dormitories and suburban schools. Currently, a study is being conducted on whether to pass a new law or include its funding in the state budget in order to make period products free for all.

A number of other countries have lowered or scrapped taxes on period products, including a dozen states in the US and countries such as the UK, Kenya, Canada, Australia, India, Colombia, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Nigeria, Uganda, Lebanon and Trinidad and Tobago. For instance, since 2001, VAT has been charged on period products at a rate of 5 percent in the UK, with EU rules meaning this “tampon tax” could not be abolished or reduced any further. Therefore, if Mongolia can’t allocate money for dispensing period products, it can at least reduce and stabilize the price of tampons by reducing the VAT rate.

No one should have to worry about where their next tampon, pad or other period products is coming from. Feminine hygiene products are as essential as toilet paper, helping women prevent health risks and fulfill their daily activities uninterrupted by nature. Providing young women with pads and tampons can help them stay focused on their learning and work and sends a message about the value and respect for their bodies. No young woman should face losing class time because she is too embarrassed to ask for, is unable to afford or simply cannot access feminine hygiene products. Today, Mongolia should make this effort to bring greater access to essential feminine care products for young women.

Misheel Lkhasuren

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