As a woman lucky enough to have had three physically straightforward conceptions, pregnancies and childbirths, I have always accepted heavy periods as an aspect of my precious fertility, which I am reluctant to complain about. But what I am increasingly sick of – what I believe we should not have to accept – is the lack of running water in most British women’s toilet cubicles.
Anything period-related is usually something we’re encouraged to keep quiet about in public but recently, as a national spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party, I raised this subject on Twitter. Within hours, hundreds of women had responded to my tweet. That dramatic response, as well as the total silence on the issue that had gone before it, has made me realise how taboo discussions of the practicalities of periods really are.
So, allow me to break that taboo...
As a girl with traditional Indian, immigrant parents, coming from a culture in which imaginary potential husbands might still be interested in the state of my hymen, I was encouraged to use disposable sanitary towels from my first period onwards. I found them bulky, leaky and sometimes smelly. Because menstruation was something I always dealt with by myself and never discussed with anyone, whatever happened to me was my normality. It was a few years before I learnt any other way.
Eventually, I taught myself to use disposable tampons so I would not miss school swimming lessons. Tampons were not bulky, leaky or smelly. However, they were expensive and potentially dangerous, while having to remember to carry the right quantity and absorbency with me on the right days of the month and disposing of them discreetly and responsibly was a bore.
Six years ago I was given a discount voucher at a festival, so I took a punt and invested in a reusable medical-grade silicone menstrual cup. I have used that cup almost every month since then, wherever I was – be that in the barristers’ chambers where I work, courts, clients’ offices, my children’s nursery or school, public buildings, public conveniences, abroad, and even at a peace camp in a field where the open-air “toilet” was a bucket alongside a second bucket of clean water and a roll of toilet paper, screened off by windbreaks. Once, at a yoga festival with outdoor, dry composting toilets, the caring organiser told me to give myself a break and gave me some of her own organic cotton tampons.
You would think that the difference in facilities between a field and a properly designed public toilet would be strikingly different but honestly, that is not always the case.
Without running water, a woman using a menstrual cup has to wipe it out with toilet paper before reinsertion, which is messy, unpleasant and potentially unhygienic. Women with heavy periods may need to use the toilet every few hours. Sometimes, we pass blood clots or experience leakage which means we would like to wash ourselves, or even rinse out and change our pants. With a long queue of women waiting for the loo, as there often is in the ladies’, I would find it excruciatingly embarrassing to go out of the cubicle to rinse out my menstrual cup in front of an audience, telling them that the toilet was still not yet vacant because I would be popping back in a moment to reinsert my menstrual cup. On the heaviest days of my period, moving around like that without the cup would also lead to bloodstains on my clothes. Disabled toilets do have sinks, but they are there to meet disabled people’s needs and should not be taken over by women who need them every month for their periods.
It would be so, so much better for women and waste reduction if the architects and engineers designing women’s toilets provided cubicles with discreet access to running water. In her reply to my tweet, Zoe Berman (architect and founder of Part W, an action group of women campaigning for gender parity in the built environment) pointed out that in the UK, 89% of engineers are male and the construction industry from inception to completion is male-dominated. And you know what? It shows.
Until we integrate gender equality in architecture, planning and construction, any architect, engineer or building owner who is designing or refurbishing toilets must consult women users frankly about their menstrual needs. Women need access to running water inside the toilet cubicle. Many countries routinely provide men and women with Japanese-style washlets, washing hoses, or bidets. When is British toilet hygiene going to come into the 21st century?