Changing the cycle: what's next in tackling period poverty
Back in November, activists and menstruators everywhere rejoiced and let out a collective, “it’s about bloody time!” In a landmark victory for both gender equality and the global movement to end period poverty, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all.
MSPs unanimously approved the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, providing a legal duty on local authorities to ensure that items like tampons and sanitary pads are available to “anyone who needs them.” Period products will be free in public buildings, schools and universities through a voucher-style scheme.
Monica Lennon, a member of the Scottish Parliament, has worked to pass this bill since 2016. It came just in time to help Scottish people weather another year of economic uncertainty that can hinder their ability to buy the menstrual products needed every month.
However, as we cast our eyes to the rest of the world, many people were completely unaware of this human rights issue in the first place. So before we can ask, “what’s next for period poverty?” We’ll talk where it started.
What is period poverty?
Back in January 2019, before the pandemic even existed, it was reported that nearly two-thirds of the working-class and lower-income families in the United States couldn’t afford tampons, pads, or other menstrual products.
Meanwhile, across the pond, a survey of more than 2,000 people by Young Scot found that about one in four respondents at school, college or university in Scotland had struggled to access period products. According to other research, in the rest of the UK, 10% of girls have been unable to afford period products; 15% have struggled to afford them; 19% have changed to a less suitable product due to cost.
As a result, some menstruators end up managing their periods with poor-quality, unhygienic substitutes like newspapers, toilet roll, rags, or even diapers – all of which methods can lead to infection. But with the average period lasting about five days, it can cost a fair bit for adequate tampons and pads – especially if it’s a choice between that and feeding your family.
This is just a snapshot. Period poverty is a human rights issue that affects menstruators on a global scale and has done for some time. It’s not just a potential health risk, but it can also mean that a person’s education, job, wellbeing and even their entire lives are affected.
Periods are not a privilege
Periods themselves are still a taboo topic in most countries and are still considered a source of shame. Take our society, for example, when Rupi Kaur’s divisive photo series demystifying menstruation legit broke the internet. Not to mention, was taken down by the social media behemoth while incurring the wrath of the Instagram gods – simply because she was tackling the taboo.
According to a 2016 study by Clue, there are over 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation across the world, and they aren’t all cutesy like ‘Aunt Flo’ either. We have been taught to hide our menstruation, be ashamed of having their products, and told to continue our regular activities and responsibilities, even when we’re in crippling pain. Some cultures even tell women that they’re “dirty” during their period, and a lack of access to adequate products serve to only further exacerbate the stigma, as it’s physically impossible to manage periods.
As well as introducing schemes like Scotland’s recent legislation, encouraging education around menstruation and medical conditions related to it, like endometriosis, can be a big help. England made learning about these topics, including proper hygiene and what counts as a healthy period compulsory for all students in September 2020.
What happens next?
The UK has a period poverty task force, with its primary mission being to tackle the stigma and better the education around periods. And obviously, to improve the accessibility of period products for all.
What about the tampon tax, you may ask? Well, Britain abolished the sales tax levied on sanitary products from January 1st (woohoo!) and have begun to roll out free period products in all primary and secondary schools. Meanwhile, a handful of US states and 15 other countries, from Australia to Trinidad and Tobago, have also scrapped taxes on sanitary goods.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a period equity activist and a fellow at the Brennan Centre for Justice, has long pushed for America’s Internal Revenue Service to change the classification of menstrual items from ‘general health products’ to medical goods. In doing so, Americans could reclaim the cost of tampons and pads against tax.
But to ensure that all people who menstruate have a hygienic and dignified period means we need to think (and speak) about period health and gender issues more broadly. We need to change the cycle of shame surrounding menstruation and add better general health education into the mix. The good news? Decision-makers are beginning to agree with activists; access to sanitary products, safe spaces to use them, and the right to manage menstruation without shame or stigma, is essential.