Menstruating people have a lot on their plates. From the monthly process of working their way through packets of painkillers, routine doctors appointments and endless diagnosis of low iron. To ruined underwear and stained sheets. But there is one fundamental aspect of having a period that should not be another weight on their shoulders: accessing products.
A study carried out by Plan International found that, during the recent lockdown, 3 in 10 girls struggled to afford or access sanitary wear. Outside of the pandemic, this struggle continues for 1 in 10 girls. The bottom line is that this statistic should not exist at all. In an ideal world, the needs of menstruating people should be considered and prioritised. This will ensure that when a global crisis like the one we have experienced this year does occur, people with periods do not have the additional stress of wondering how they will afford or access sanitary products.
So, where is this poverty coming from?
It is estimated that the average menstruating person spends £4,800 on period products in their lifetime. With the average cost of a packet of pads or tampons falling at £2.37 (one packet is often insufficient for one cycle.) For the 5.2 Million women already in poverty in the UK this is a huge exacerbation and could be the choice between a meal or a pack of sanitary pads- a choice no one should have to make in today’s society. Plan International found that in a year, 137,700 children in the UK miss school because of period poverty.
Period Poverty boils down to the simple, unfortunate fact that menstruation is not seen as a priority health issue. This is evident in the government’s failure to include menstrual hygiene management in the Covid-19 health response.
Where legislation is gradually being announced in an attempt to combat period poverty on a large scale, it simply is not being brought into action fast enough. In 2016, the Scottish Government claimed that menstruation is ‘not a health issue’ and only now, well over a year since the Bill to end period poverty was introduced by Monica Lennon MSP, is it in the first stage of moving towards becoming law.
How does stigma tie into it?
If menstruation is not being considered a health issue, then Period Poverty is not going to go away. Systemic sexism and the reluctance to place emphasis on taboo subjects such as periods mean that the needs of the female body will continue to be pushed aside into a bundle of things to ‘think about later,’ unless more is done to prioritise them.
The reluctance to regard these issues as fundamentally important puts women themselves
directly in harm’s way. The narrative around what a period is and how menstruating people are regarded in society is still today, even in a country that praises itself on being progressive, having a negative impact on people’s lives.
What are the risks?
Widely, the danger that comes from stigmatising periods is not going away. The practise of ‘Chhaupadi’ involves the shunning of women and young girls in western/rural Nepal, from everyday life during their periods. Menstruating people are banished to an outside hut or animal shed for up to ten days, due to the belief that they are ‘impure, unclean and untouchable’ on their periods. Although less extreme in the UK, this notion of treating periods as something unhygienic and dirty is still very much an active mentality.
WaterAid UK found that 1 in 4 menstruating people did not understand what was happening to their bodies when they first got their period. A further 1 in 4 regard their periods as embarrassing. This embarrassment has a direct impact on the lives of young, menstruating people, with around 49% missing school because of their periods, implicating their education and hindering their chances at academic success later in life. And if periods are not reported as being embarrassing enough for young, menstruating people, then not having access to suitable sanitary wear is making it near impossible for them to thrive in any given environment. The silence around these issues arising from stigmatising periods also massively increases the risk of anxiety around body image, as well as making chronic illnesses like Endometriosis harder to diagnose because of this hesitancy to approach the topic of periods confidently and openly.
What can be done?
Clearly, not enough is being done to normalise menstruation and as long as we continue to treat it as something taboo, the means of dealing with it will continue to be unaccessible. It is vital that more is done to ensure that the basic needs of women and menstruating people do not continue to be undervalued. Although there are groups working fantastically to put an end to period poverty, from far-reaching organisations like Bloody Big Period, right down to student-led initiatives on university campuses, the ability to end this issue lies in the hands of the Government who must continue to push for legislation protecting and prioritising menstruating people. The ability to access suitable hygiene products should not be compromised, and people with periods should not have to continue jumping through hoops just to get their hands on an essential item.
Written by Lauren Galligan (Period Poverty Society University of Edinburgh)
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