Menstruation is an inconvenient truth for women. I can't say I'm looking forward to telling my daughters about the monthly fun that lies ahead for them in years to come. Every time I read one of those joy-sapping money saving articles, advising us on how to save a few quid a month by clutching a lukewarm flask of coffee on the commute to work instead of indulging in the occasional, small pleasure of a takeaway cappuccino, I wish they would tell me something a bit more interesting. Like how much I'm doomed to spend on the necessary evil that is sanitary protection during my lifetime (an average of £18,450 in case you're interested)
Sanitary protection is an essential and it's shocking to think of any woman having to suffer the indignity of going without. Last month, Freedom4Girls, a charity which provides sanitary wear for impoverished women in Kenya, reported that they are also offering help to schoolgirls in Leeds after teachers noticed they were playing truant each month and the charity's founder has said that the problem is "linked to poverty". There have been calls for sanitary pads to be offered to girls from low-income families who qualify for free school meals and some universities in the UK already offer free sanitary protection for female students. Labour MSP Monica Lennon is launching a Member's Bill in the Scottish Parliament to legislate against "period poverty." Campaigners say there is a problem with the stigma and shame attached to menstruation, with girls resorting to using tissues and socks, rather than asking for help.
Which is why it's so galling that there is a tax on tampons at all. In 2016, former Chancellor George Osborne announced that the 5% VAT charged on women's sanitary products would be scrapped, after David Cameron had raised the issue with EU partners and secured backing for a change in the rules. But after failing to honour the pledge, Osborne made a commitment to more than £10m a year from the tax being redistributed to women's charities dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged women and girls across the country. But this weekend it emerged that a £250,000 grant, one of the largest from the fund, would be allocated to Life a controversial anti-abortion charity with a network of unregulated pregnancy counselling centres. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a not-for-profit organisation that provides abortion care and support for women, describes Life as a charity well known for campaigning against women's access to abortion. On their Twitter feed, they point to a statement on Life's website (that has since been removed), where they had described abortion in cases of rape as "the death penalty."
I refuse to use the term 'pro-life' when referring to those who campaign against abortion rights. I am pro-choice and pro-women's rights, not anti-life or pro-killing. And language matters. Anti-abortion campaigners have form for using emotive and scaremongering rhetoric and visuals to further their cause. In the final days of US presidential campaigning, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton would allow abortions so late doctors could "rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby." In Britain, most abortions take place before 12 weeks with the aid of pills but if a woman orders those pills online and takes them without the consent of two doctors, she can face life imprisonment. So can a doctor who gives them to her to take at home instead of in the clinic. Last month, Diana Johnson, MP for Hull North, was met with a similar reaction from anti-abortion campaigners when she introduced a ten-minute rule bill to discuss reform of this obscure Victorian law, passed when women did not even have the vote. Johnson succeeded and MPs now have the right to introduce a bill to parliament which would decriminalise abortion by repealing the law.
But there's still a long way to go. The now infamous photograph of President Trump, signing an anti-abortion executive order, surrounded exclusively by men, as he signed away the reproductive rights of women in developing countries by reinstating the global gag rule, should remind us of the immense power and influence wielded by anti-abortion campaigners. In the Republic of Ireland, women are still fighting for constitutional change. A clause known as the Eighth Amendment, grants a foetus the same citizenship and rights as a pregnant woman and abortion is a criminal offence where women face up to 14 years in prison. This is the case for all pregnancies, including those conceived as a result of rape or incest, or where the foetus cannot survive outside the womb. It's estimated that 12 women a day face the indignity of travelling to Great Britain to access a safe and legal termination.
The insult and injury caused by this already unfair tax on women, being used to benefit an organisation that actively undermines women's rights is shockingly offensive. No woman should have to suffer the indignity of going without sanitary protection and no woman should have to suffer the indignity of others making decisions about her reproductive organs. No woman should be treated as a vessel. As the Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, put it when she tweeted the government minister who made the announcement, how about cutting funding to anti-abortion groups and re-allocating it so that no young woman goes without tampons in school instead? Now there's a novel idea.