Not having enough money to pay for tampons or pads and thus missing school or work because you’re afraid of leakage stains. A situation that only happens in developing countries? Wrong. Period poverty also exists in Europe and the USA.
Unfortunately, ‘period poverty’ has become the menstrual theme of the year 2017. But what’s surprising is that this year it wasn’t only about the appalling conditions millions of girls and women in for example African or Asian countries have to deal with, but also about the situation closer to home. About period poverty in the USA, Australia, Canada and Europe. Places which, on first sight, are more likely to ‘suffer’ from an overkill of menstrual items to choose from in the shops than from impoverishment. What’s happening?
Tampon tax – sanitary items are not a luxury
Some recent history: the #periodpoverty discussion started in 2014, when British student Laura Coryton launched her Stop Taxing Periods campaign. Coryton wanted to get rid of the 5% luxury tax on sanitary products in Britain, because tampons, pads and menstrual cups are essentials (unlike luxurious items such as helicopters, crocodile steaks and edible sugar flowers which aren’t taxed on ‘non-essential’ grounds, but that’s a different story). She succeeded: in 2016 the British Treasury vowed to axe the tax.
Her campaign was supported worldwide: people demonstrated with banners and XL-tampons, while water in city fountains was coloured red. As a result, politicians finally paid attention. In the USA, where these tax decisions are made on a state-by-state basis, then-president Barack Obama revealed in an interview that he suspected sanitary items were taxed as luxury items ‘because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed’. Meanwhile, some American states have abolished the tampon tax.
Old socks and newspapers – managing menstruation without money
Also in Canada menstrual products are now excluded from the Goods & Service Tax (GST) and in Europe, France was the first country to reduce the tax on hygiene products from 20% to 5.5% (Belgium decided to reduce to 6%, in the Netherlands it’s always been 6% and menstruators in Ireland pay 0% VAT). However, the #tampontax discussion, which is more about fiscal discrimination than about wanting free menstrual products, is only a part of the period poverty problem.
Because managing your menstruation can already be a daunting task if you have all kinds of products to your disposal – those leakage stains happen to every woman. Now try to imagine what it’s like without a budget for clean underpants and hot water, let alone the money to buy enough sanitary napkins. Nowadays there’s more and more attention for the situation of the homeless, refugees and low income families. In the last couple of years the number of fundraising campaigns, initiatives and organisations trying to improve the situation of women in need by donating menstrual products has grown rapidly.
Amika George: ‘Period poverty is robbing UK girls of a childhood’
Because period poverty exists. Not only in developing countries, but also in the western world. For example in the UK, where in March 2017, charity Freedom4Girls revealed that school girls in Leeds were skipping classes every month because they couldn’t afford hygiene products. In October 2017, a survey by Plan International UK found that 10% of girls between 14 and 21 have been unable to afford sanitary wear. Just recently (on 20 December 2017), hundreds of people demonstrated against period poverty in the streets of London. The goal of this peaceful Pink Protest? To encourage the government to provide school girls on free school meals with free tampons and sanitary pads, in order to reduce truancy.
The 18-years-old Amika George, who initiated the above-mentioned protest and the #FreePeriods campaign, explained her motives in a passionate TedEx talk: ‘Girls in the UK are routinely missing school for the simple fact that they can’t afford sanitary products. They have to choose between an education they need and deserve, or going to school using horrific and almost primitive alternatives like toilet paper, old socks or newspapers… Period poverty is robbing girls of a childhood. It’s atrocious.’ The #FreePeriods petition George started on Change.org has already been signed by more than 120.000 people.
Monica Lennon: ‘Free sanitary products from a fuss-free collection point’
Also in Scotland, period poverty is high on the agenda. Especially because of Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour MSP. ‘My proposal is to introduce a system in Scotland where sanitary products can be obtained for free from a fuss-free collection point,’ she tells Period! Magazine via email. ‘The other aspect is that schools, colleges and universities will provide free sanitary products in their toilets.’
Her proposal was subject to public consultation until 8 December 2017. Lennon stresses her plan includes more than just the availability of the menstrual products. ‘The vast majority of people would still to continue to buy their preferred brands from supermarkets and other retailers. The idea behind this is that people experiencing poverty and low income would be able to access products in a dignified manner and that people in education would have the peace of mind that sanitary protection is available on campus should they need it.’
Embarrassment – ‘tampons’ only mentioned in relation to beach pollution
‘As well as preventing people from the experience of period poverty, the campaign is also about confronting the stigma that hangs over menstruation,’ says Lennon. ‘Despite the fact that there are approximately 1.3 million people in Scotland who collectively experience almost 90 million days of menstrual bleeding every year, periods remain a taboo subject. Bleeding and cramps apparently aren’t topics for polite conversation – so, more often than not, discussing periods happens in a hushed tone or not at all. Understanding this underlying cultural attitude about periods is crucial to understanding why access to menstrual sanitary products remains an issue in Scotland in 2017.’
A 2016 study by ActionAid showed that over half of the women in the UK are embarrassed to talk about their periods. Research this organisation did for Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017 indicated that one in four women aged between 16 and 39 in the UK doesn’t understand their menstrual cycle. The embarrassment and secrecy when it comes to talking about menstruation clearly explains why this subject isn’t being given the political attention it deserves. Lennon: ‘Prior to my member’s business debate on this topic in September 2016, the only other mention of ‘tampons’ in the Scottish Parliament chamber, according to the Official Report, was a 2004 debate in which they were part of a list of sewage-related debris found on beaches.’
The Netherlands & Italy – paid menstrual leave instead of missing out?
The situation of some girls and women in England and Scotland is dire. But it’s not that bad in every western country. In the Netherlands there doesn’t seem to be so much period poverty: a Dutch distributor of menstrual cups who was looking for a Dutch charity to donate some products, is still searching. Also Dutch homeless shelters, which usually provide sanitary products, seldom get any requests for tampons and pads – the financial support that 95% of the Dutch homeless people get should be enough to cover menstrual products.
No, in the Netherlands there’s something else going on when it comes to menstruation. One look at Dutch media and you’ll see that the word of 2017 in the Netherlands is ‘menstruatieverlof’ (menstrual leave). In other words: being given paid leave because you’re on your period. This is also the case in Italy, which made the news in March 2017 because it could become the first European country to offer women three days of paid menstrual leave a month. Being allowed to stay at home while you’re being paid, instead of missing work or education because you can’t afford sanitary products. It’s a completely different, and definitely more decadent way, of spending that time of the month…