Every month, when their periods arrive, Aunty Kartika and Makcik Izzah have to borrow pads from each other to get through the week.
For seven years now, they have been neighbours, living on the same floor of the low-cost housing project in Kota Damansara, Selangor.
At times, neither of them can afford to buy sanitary napkins. With no one else to turn to, they are forced to use rags or even old nappies when their periods arrive.
For them, this is always the most stressful time of the month.
“I am always uncomfortable when my period comes,” Izzah said in a recent interview with MalaysiaNow.
“Especially when I have to use old nappies — it makes me feel unclean. I get easily angry and very emotional,” she added.
“I can’t get anything done around the house because I’m so agitated.”
Kartika and Izzah are among the many women who are unable to afford sanitary products each month, a problem known colloquially as period poverty.
MalaysiaNow first reported on the issue in January 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But a period poverty advocacy movement comprising NGOs and researchers known as Peduli Merah said awareness remains low.
“There are even some who deny that it is a problem,” its spokesman Nursyuhaidah A Razak told MalaysiaNow.
She said some believe that the issue is made up or deliberately portrayed as worse than it really is.
“People think it’s illogical for there to be anyone who cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins every month,” she added.
And while the group aims to spread awareness about the problem of period poverty, there are also those who misunderstand its efforts.
“When there are women who choose to get pregnant in order to save on pads, some people say that this is why poor people have so many children and even dump some of their babies.
“So it gets turned into an issue of baby dumping,” she said, adding that such experiences had been related by stateless girls in Sabah.
One packet of 14 sanitary napkins at a sundry store is sold for about RM11 to RM17. Women can use between 14 and 20 pads throughout the week of their period.
Households with more than one woman can require about 60 sanitary napkins per month, the cost of which can breach RM51.
Nursyuhaidah said many people also see period poverty as a frivolous matter.
“They think, do even pads need to be made into an issue? This needs to be corrected as well,” she said.
“Again and again, we say: this is not just about buying pads. The root issue is that pads are a basic necessity. The question should be: why are some people unable to afford them?”
On July 20, the women, family and community development ministry said the government had so far spent RM2.39 million or 77% of its allocated budget on sanitary napkins for B40 students as well as educational programmes about hygiene.
But Nursyuhaidah said no one had yet approached her group to donate sanitary pads for the urban poor.
This makes it difficult to compare the situation and the trend of donations before and after the pandemic.
“Normally, we are the ones who approach the donors and ask them first,” she said.
“No one has ever turned away the offer of sanitary pads if it is made.”