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Menstrual Matters: Period Poverty Must End Now

26/05/2017 14:41

I'm going to be honest and admit that I'm suffering from an acute case of voter apathy. Disappointed by the result of the EU referendum, I'm less than enthused by the prospect of the snap general election and haven't paid much heed to the headlines nor the leaflets shoved through my door.

But last week I came across pledges from the Greens and Liberal Democrats that finally sparked my interest. Both have promised to end period poverty by providing schools with free sanitary products for girls from low-income families.

Period poverty has become a hot topic in the media recently, sparked by shocking reports in March that girls in Leeds were missing school and using socks and newspapers to stem monthly bleeding because they couldn't afford tampons.

The news triggered a nationwide petition for free sanitary products for disadvantaged schoolgirls and a promise by Education Secretary Justine Greening to "look into" the matter.

This is the kind of issue at the fore of Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated on 28th May. Established in 2013, MH Day is a global platform that brings together groups from both the private and public sectors, with a mission to "create a world in which every woman and girl can manage her menstruation in a hygienic way - wherever she is - in privacy, safety and with dignity."

Why does this matter to me? Because, like half the world's population, I have a uterus, which means I bleed for about five days a month and will do so for some thirty years of my life.

Most women could write a mini-novella about their period dramas.

Just last week I came on my period at the gym, about three minutes before my Zumba class was about to start. With no supplies to hand, I tried my luck with the sanitary machine (the kind that looks like it hasn't delivered anything since maybe a pair of Aristoc tights in the mid-80s). After banging repeatedly on the clapped out colossus, I accepted defeat and waddled my way to ask for supplies. Luckily, the female receptionist was on duty. In my finest ventriloquist-woman-speak I muttered "do you have a tampon", before hurriedly stuffing the offending item up my sleeve and lolloping back to the changing rooms (in the end I leaked through my tampon and the cramps got so bad I had to leave the class).

Classic menstrual mishap, right? No big deal. And it wasn't, because as a "privileged" western woman, I have daily access to aisle upon aisle of just about every female hygiene product known to man - you name it; pads, tampons, sprays, wipes and leopard-print pantyliner cases produced by an expanding multi-billion pound industry.

So imagine if tampons and pads weren't an option - imagine if getting your period meant you couldn't leave the house, much less go to work or school.

While period poverty in this country is a relatively rare phenomenon, it's widespread across large swathes of the developing world, particularly India and Africa, where a lack of access to sanitary products is coupled with a crippling culture of shame around menstruation that rockets Laura Bates' "everyday sexism" to a whole new stratosphere.

In these countries periods themselves are often considered dirty, impure, even evil, meaning menstruating women are forbidden from taking part in everyday activities or even outcast from society altogether. In many parts of India women cannot pray in temples, cook or even enter the kitchen when they're on their periods. In remote areas of Nepal they are banished to "menstrual huts" for the duration of their cycle.

The good news is there are grassroots organisations out there campaigning for women, including Binti, a UK-based charity I came across during a chat with a work colleague that led to a meeting with its CEO Manjit Gill who told me about the charity's work origins.

"In 2014, I was working for the Cherie Blair foundation, mentoring a woman in Nairobi when, one day, she told me that women in her village had no access to sanitary items and were forced to use dirty rags, straw, sand - and sometimes even cow dung - to stem bleeding during their period."

From setting up sustainable business initiatives in India, where women make their own re-usable pads, to educating girls in the slums of Swaziland about what a period is, Binti is engaged in a global fight to smash crippling cultural stigma related to menstruation.

As well as its overseas work, Binti has joined several initiatives to provide sanitary products to homeless and vulnerable women across Britain and is campaigning to put menstrual education on the national curriculum alongside sex education.

To me, this kind of direct action is what feminism is all about. We need to help groups like Binti end period poverty for good.

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