Period Poverty: A Bloody Injustice

I will never forget the scene in Ken Loach'swhen the character Katie gets taken into the backroom of a shop for trying to steal tampons because she is too poor to afford them.
Gustaf Brundin via Getty Images

I will never forget the scene in Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake when the character Katie gets taken into the backroom of a shop for trying to steal tampons because she is too poor to afford them.

Lack of education on menstrual hygiene, affordability, stigmatisation and gender bias legislation means around half the world's population will struggle with their period in one way or another throughout their cycle.

Taboo of the subject is just one of the many contributing factors which has led to the hidden crisis of period poverty. On average, women are forced to endure routinely painful experiences every single month for up to a week or longer, between the ages 11 to 50. Yet society still makes us feel as though it is something disgusting - a dirty aspect of our existence that we should hide regardless of how much pain and discomfort we are enduring. Like J.K. Rowling's Lord Voldemort, even the word period is stigmatised beyond utterance; He-Who-Must-Be-Renamed Time Of The Month.

In the UK research has shown women spend over £18,000 on their periods over the course of their lifetime. Sanitary products are pricey, a facet not helped by the five per cent VAT charge on them for being considered a "luxury item" - meanwhile Jaffa Cakes are considered essential items and so remain untaxed. A recent investigation by RightsInfo revealed up to 5,000 women were collecting sanitary products on a monthly basis from food banks and homeless shelters.

To relieve the financial burden of sanitary protection for those unable to afford it, north London based voluntary organisation Bloody Good Period (BGP) was established. BGP currently distributes sanitary products to 1,2000 asylum seekers and refugees a month. Commenting on why we still face barriers to menstrual health access, founder Gabby Edlin said:

'There's stigma because they're female and not sexy, not pretty and not clean. And because of a structurally sexist society we inhabit, period poverty is inevitable. 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.'

Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM)

In developing countries, the problem is exacerbated as periods prevent girls from getting educated. But periods themselves are not the problem, it is the lack of access to resources that can help women and girls to manage their menstrual hygiene. According to UNESCO, 1 out of 10 African schoolgirls skips school or drops out of education entirely due to a lack of menstrual products and poor access to proper sanitation.

Accessible sanitary hygiene is crucial to enabling women and girls to manage their menstrual cycle with dignity, in turn helping them to break down barriers that hold them back from opportunities like education and work.

This is why organisation's like AFRIpads have been launched in Uganda, who supply reusable and locally manufactured sanitary pads to empower local communities and beyond. Founder Sophia Grinvalds says she started AFRIpads 'to enable girls and women to live productive and dignified lives where something as natural and normal as periods doesn't hold them back'.

MHM is integral to furthering social and economic growth and empowerment, while also helping the world to achieve a handful of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including, quality education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), and clean water and sanitation (SDG 6). But only with cross-sector collaboration on humanitarian aid and development platforms - including NGOs, private companies, governments and academic bodies - can it be ensured that every single woman on this planet has access to the basic necessity of menstrual hygiene.

Political progress

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states we should all have a right to health. A lack of sanitary supplies can seriously curtail hygiene and health. Although the progress to fight for the human right to hygienic periods is slow, some positive measures are being taken.

In 2015, the government of India launched National Guidelines on MHM to respond to almost 113 million adolescent girls' at risk of dropping out of school due to starting their period.

In that same year Canada scrapped its tax on female hygiene products following a 'scrap the tampon tax' petition which successfully pressured the conservative government at the time.

Scotland very recently committed to roll out a pilot scheme for women in Aberdeen on low incomes to have access to free sanitary products - the first of its kind. No other government-backed scheme has attempted to tackle period poverty in this way.

At the UK Labour Party conference last Saturday, shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler announced a Labour government would provide universal free access to sanitary products for secondary schools, food banks and homeless shelters with their Period Poverty Campaign.

While these government initiatives hopefully inspire other nations to follow suit, they are simply not enough. Each and every one of us has a part to play in normalising menstruation. Men must be just as educated and informed if we are to eliminate the shame and embarrassment associated with discussing periods.

From a rural village in Sub-Saharan Africa to a council estate in Aberdeen, period poverty is a widespread issue concerning young women and girls worldwide. It is only once we have access to affordable sanitary products, accurate information on our menstrual health and absolutely zero feelings of shame and stigma when menstruating, can we bring this bloody injustice of period poverty to an end.


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