Period Poverty During Communism
Updated: Jun 14
By Diana Potra.
Illustrations by Iasmina Angheluță.
Period poverty is defined as the inability to afford sanitary products and having a lack of knowledge or understanding of menstruation. It mostly affects young women from lower-class backgrounds who have nowhere to turn when it comes to period poverty, usually being prevented both by income and by shame.
We’ve all heard stories about life under the communistic rule, whether it be from our grandparents or parents, and whether they shone a light on the good or the bad parts. The stories I’ve usually heard always tackled the same problems: Waiting in impossibly long lines for something as simple as bread, living on one floor of a house yourself, whilst strangers lived on the other, so on and so forth. They are all, of course, fascinating tales of a life that mirrors our lives today, but is still so far removed it feels somewhat alien. Yet these tales are so lacking when it comes to the aspects they showcase. It’s always food, housing, transport; never harassment, prejudices, fears.
As much as we like to believe that we, as a society, have long since moved past the hush-hush mentality of the generations that lived under communism, it’s very evident that we are still impacted by it. We’re still very reluctant to go against the status quo, protest and fight for what we believe in, even express our thoughts and opinions. Our culture still labels a myriad of subjects as ‘taboo’, and more often than not, we don’t even think twice about it.
One such subject is menstruation. Yes, you can go ahead and cringe, or laugh, or do whatever you usually do when hearing taboo words, but don’t click off this article just yet. When we place a veil of secrecy over a certain subject and ask that no one ever remove that veil, something regrettable takes place: The problems deriving from that topic are also never discussed, and therefore, can never be solved. In our case, that problem is represented by period poverty.
During communism, it was prevalent with millions lacking even the most basic education about menstruation, let alone comprehensive resources or even the few NGOs that tackle period poverty today. As far as physical resources are concerned, I talked to the women in my family about how they tackled their period during a time when it was quite literally impossible to find sanitary products. The answers they gave me were varied, but mostly, they used things such as wadding or cloth, and told me that while the products we use today are a huge improvement, what they used in the past was also manageable. Whilst listening to them, and their answers shone a light on the subject, all the women I was talking to were from middle to upper-middle-class backgrounds, were better educated, and had a better standard of living than others. Therefore, I figured I also needed to talk to a woman who lived in a lower-class rural environment during her teen years.
Irina first worked for my family's business, and when she got older started helping us around the house for nearly three decades, so now she's nearly family. She’s been living in Bucharest for the better part of forty years, but the memories of her village in Dobrogea are still vivid, given how she describes them. She’s excited about being interviewed but somewhat reluctant to answer my questions regarding menstruation. When I ask her what she did to manage having her period and going to school, she seems shocked at the simplicity of my question.
“I was lucky because I had a form teacher that was a woman, and she understood when we girls missed a week of school.”
I’m a bit baffled by her answer. Being a high school student myself, I know that whenever I miss a week of school, I have a huge amount of work to catch up on. The Covid-19 crisis, which at the time of writing this has forced schools to close down for the foreseeable future, has given us all a glimpse into just how dire a situation missing weeks and weeks of school is.
“How did you catch up?” I ask her.
“It was tough, but I was a good student, better than the rest of the girls. Better than some of the boys, even” she laughs. "When I missed school, I did all the housework that had to be done in the morning, because in the afternoon, my best friend would come over straight from school. She'd bring me her notebook, and pick it up in the morning, on the way to school. We were very close, so I did the same for her. But when both of us missed school at the same time, it was much harder.”
I leave our interview with more questions than I had before. Now, this is truly a life most of us would struggle to imagine. Managing work, missing school, and being barely able to afford food, let alone sanitary products. It’s a world that seems very far removed, and thankfully, some parts of it have improved, but not all.
Some girls in rural Romania today are still missing school because of their periods. They are denied their fundamental right to education and are forced to work twice as hard to even have a shot at catching up, when truthfully, if we would, for once, set aside the taboos and prejudices of generations that have been long gone, we could all help improve these girls’ lives, and by providing them with proper education, their communities, and our country as a whole.
Period poverty is a complex issue. It's much more than simply being unable to afford sanitary products. It plays in class, education, background, race, and many more factors. Given that, it seems to be a complicated issue to solve, but really, all we have to do is urge the government to provide women with fundamental necessities. I ask that you join me in demanding this, because, if there is one thing the COVID-19 crisis has taught us, it's that when those around us don't have access to healthcare or hygiene, we all suffer immensely for it.