Period poverty flows worldwide, and it’s a bloody injustice

From costly
sanitary products to feelings of stigma and shame – why do we put up with this?

Sanitary pads. 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. 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.

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