Photo: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba
Globally, ‘menstruation,’ vagina’ and ‘period’ are words and topics that are spoken about in whispers. This is often followed by a quick side glance to see who’s around before quickly letting a friend know about the pain you’re in or asking if someone has a spare pad. Most of us who menstruate have at some point put a pad or tampon up our sleeve on the walk to the office bathroom, afraid that someone might find out we are experiencing one of the most natural bodily processes. Most women bleed (accumulatively) between 2-3 months per year yet we continue to pretend like this is not part of our reality.
Our inability as a society to talk about periods perpetuates the idea that menstruation and womanhood is shameful and has resulted in a silent epidemic of period poverty and menstruation and gender-based inequality. Thanks to the tireless efforts of individuals and groups, and new platforms like Netflix shedding light on a historically taboo topic, period poverty as a term and issue is slowly and rightfully getting more and more media attention and awareness.
Many people know vaguely of the issues facing women and girls in low income countries. These include issues such as:
- high rate of school drop-out due to the inability to manage their periods,
- teenage pregnancies caused by the promise of pads by older men in exchange for unprotected, sex,
- the risk of infection and disease by inadequate bathroom and WASH facilities,
- the traditional practices of outcasting a woman or girl during her period
- and the rise of the reusable pad movement.
But only recently has the extent of period poverty within western and high-income countries like the UK and the US been brought to light. Within the UK for example, the extent of period poverty and those it impacts is wide and varied. From homeless women and those on low income, refugees and asylum seekers, to school and university students.
Homelessness and period poverty
Currently within the UK, there are an estimated 68,000 homeless women living on the street or in temporary accommodation. Challenges facing homeless women surrounding menstruation are much greater than simply accessing pads and tampons. Food banks and homeless shelters are often an unstable resource for homeless women accessing menstrual supplies. However even when women have access to supplies, then the often even more challenging issue of where to use them arises. Without regular access to a sanitation facilities, where does a woman change her pad or tampon? Where does she safely dispose the used item? And where does she have the opportunity to wash herself?
Refugees and period poverty
Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK receive a weekly allowance of £37.75, intended to cover all of their basic needs - food, clothing, toiletries, travel and if they are a menstruating woman, this also covers their menstrual supplies. On average, a woman with a heavy flow will spend around £11 on menstrual supplies for a one-week period. £11 out of £37.75. Many refugees and asylum seekers rely on organisations like Bloody Good Period, who collect donations of sanitary items and supply them to asylum seeker drop in centres around the UK, where women in need can collect them free of charge.
Students and period poverty
A recent study published by Plan International UK found that around 10% of school and university aged girls (14-21 years old) living in the UK had not been able to afford sanitary products. That’s one girl in every ten! Another study focusing on the efforts by schools to address this issue found that 40% of teachers have resorted to supplying girls with pads or tampons from their own personal supply. The impact of limited access or lack of access to sanitary supplies is greater than just the embarrassment of a stain or the missing of school - there are also significant health implications. Many girls are resorting to makeshift protection from things such as used socks, cotton rags or layers of toilet paper. It was found that 11% of school girls are using products, such as tampons, for a much greater time period than the product recommends, or reusing blood soaked pads, purely because they don't have a replacement, significantly increasing their chance of infection or disease.
Periods are a normal and healthy part of life affecting over 50% of the world’s population - a process which literally allows the continuation of the human race - yet continues to be stigmatised and used as justification for the discrimination and violation of women’s rights all over the world. While stigma continues to surround periods and vaginas, period poverty and discrimination will continue to prevail. We have gone to an outrageous extent to avoid saying the word ‘period’ - with over 5,000 euphemisms used across the world (hello Aunt Flo!) - showing just how deeply entrenched the ideas and conditioning in society are that menstruation is shameful and qualifies those who menstruate as second-class citizens.
Periods aren’t going away and it’s time that we all played our part and join those who are already standing up and publicly declaring that no menstruating person should ever be shamed or discriminated against for bleeding or be unable to access the essential items needed to retain their human dignity and manage their menstruation.
So what is the first step? Say the word period. And say it unashamedly.
This blog was written in partnership with Restless Development for the Water Action Month campaign as part of its weekly themes series, focusing on reducing inequalities in water, sanitation and hygiene.