Sanitary pads. Photo: Pastorius/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0. Some rights reserved.
Women everywhere must endure pain, every single month, for up to a week or longer, from the age of around 12 to 50. Yet society still makes us feel as if our periods are disgusting – dirty aspects of our existence that we should hide, regardless of how much pain or discomfort we face. Like J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort, even the word ‘period’ can feel stigmatised beyond utterance; He-Who-Must-Be-Renamed “that time of the month”.
In the UK, a 2015 survey suggested that women spend more than £18,000 on their periods over the course of their lifetime. Sanitary products are pricey – a fact not helped by the 5% VAT charge for being considered a “luxury item” (while baked goods like Jaffa Cakes are considered essential items, and are untaxed). A recent investigation by the charity RightsInfo revealed that 5,000 women (and perhaps many more) collect sanitary products each month from food banks and homeless shelters.
In north London, the voluntary organisation Bloody Good Period was set up precisely to tackle the financial burden of sanitary protection. It distributes sanitary products to 1,200 asylum seekers and refugees a month. Founder Gabby Edlin told me that periods are stigmatised “because they’re female and not sexy, not pretty and not clean.” She added: “Women are already disadvantaged by government cuts, and so combine that with all too common poverty, and ‘unpalatable’ problems like periods are pushed further down the list of priorities.”
“Women are already disadvantaged by government cuts, and so combine that with all too common poverty, and ‘unpalatable’ problems like periods are pushed further down the list of priorities.”
In developing countries, periods and insufficient access to menstrual hygiene can even limit girls’ access to education. UN estimates suggest that approximately one in 10 African schoolgirls skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely due to a lack of clean and private sanitation facilities.
In Uganda, an organisation called AFRIpads produces reusable and locally-manufactured sanitary pads. Founder Sophia Grinvalds told AidEx – the international aid platform, where I work – that the goal is “to enable girls and women to live productive and dignified lives where something as natural and normal as periods doesn’t hold them back”.
Menstrual hygiene is also important to wider social and economic growth and empowerment, and to the achievement of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) on education, gender equality, and water and sanitation. It’s necessary to realise our right to health, as enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights. But how can we ensure that every single woman on this planet has access to this basic necessity?
Students in Ethiopia holding sanitary pads. Photo: Carola Frentzen/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Progress is slow, but some positive measures have been taken. In 2015, the Inidan government launched new national guidelines on menstrual hygiene management that recognise this issue as a society-wide concern, and attempt to break the silence of officials and in the classroom. That same year, Canada stopped taxing female hygiene products following a “scrap the tampon tax” petition which successfully pressured the conservative government at the time.
More recently, in August Scotland committed to roll-out a pilot project to give low-income women in Aberdeen free sanitary products. No other government-backed scheme in Britain has attempted to tackle period poverty in this way – though last month, shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler announced that a Labour government would provide universal free access to sanitary products for secondary schools, food banks and homeless shelters.
Such government initiatives will hopefully inspire other nations to follow suit – but they are also not enough. Each of us has a role to play in normalising menstruation. Women and girls need accessible sanitary hygiene to manage their cycles with dignity. Men must be just as educated about this part of women’s lives if we are to end the shame and embarrassment associated with even discussing our periods.
While contexts and challenges differ, from a rural village in sub-Saharan Africa to a council estate in Aberdeen, period poverty is a widespread issue. It is only once we have access to affordable sanitary products, accurate information about our menstrual health, and absolutely zero feelings of shame and stigma, can we bring this bloody injustice to an end.