Are the stories of women and girls using socks, rags, and newspapers to cover up their periods really, considered history?
“I was financially troubled and I ran out of pads rather quickly, so, I had to start using tissue as pads and towels to cover my bed.”
Like Sian Louise, a 22-year-old disabled student, there are thousands of women in the UK today, who experience the degrading issue of period poverty. For many in Britain, period poverty is a concept only thought to be suffered by those in the third world or developing countries. They would not think to themselves: “does this happen here?” The sad truth is 1 in 10 young women suffer through this traumatic and humiliating ordeal.
Women and girls as young as 10 years old are faced with the degrading experience of being unable to afford protection from a basic bodily function. They consistently suffer through the trauma of stuffing socks, bin liners, toilet roll and plastic bags down their underwear. All in the hopes of preventing any blood accidentally seeping through their clothes. For others who can’t bear this preventative embarrassment, they will miss out on school, college, university and even work to ride out their routinely monthly cycle.
YouGov research, commissioned by ActionAid in 2016, found more than 3.5 million girls and women in the UK had missed school or work due to their period; yet only 27 percent were truthful regarding the cause of absence. The national average for a period lasting is up to 3 – 5 days; so, imagine how much learning and work they are missing due to this.
For Sian, this was a sad reality during her time at school. “I couldn't go out when I was on my period as I couldn’t afford pads. I would isolate myself, get embarrassed and hideaway. It caused me to skip school; I lost my confidence and then just gave up trying to cover it. ”
There is a question to ask with this statement; why should women and girls feel the shame or embarrassment of experiencing a basic bodily function? Especially, when in Scotland alone, approximately 1.3million of our population undergo collectively almost 90 million days of menstrual bleeding every year.
Girls from the very tender age of 9 are taught menstruation is a discreet and taboo subject. Their teachers, parents, and society impart that they cannot openly discuss this normal monthly process unless it is with other women or girls. In any case, it is spoken of in hushed tones or cryptic manners all to hide under the shame of their plight. They balk at the idea – when rushing to the toilet - of hearing a male counterpart utter the question, "where are you going with that bag?"
It is hard to wonder why women don’t feel ashamed by their periods under this constant pressure and scrutiny of remaining secretive. In a 2016 survey by ActionAid, the results exposed that a third of British women were embarrassed by their periods.
Jem Collins, news and social media Editor for RigtsInfo, adds: “I think one of the biggest problems around period poverty is that people don't talk about it because periods are still taboo, let alone the perceived shame of talking about period poverty.”
Alongside the stigma of periods, comes the double-edged sword of shame when being unable to afford the preventative products for this state. Sian whilst financially troubled was forced to rely upon her local hospital to provide her with thick enough pads to support her heavy flow and disposable underwear to get her through the night. “It is embarrassing not being able to just walk in and buy what you need.”
A rising number of women and girls have had to improvise with unhygienic methods in order to soak up their menstrual bleeding as they have insufficient access to regular sanitary products. This unfortunate position puts them at risk to varying degrees of health issues such as irritation to infection and even the potential of suffering from fatal Toxic Shock Syndrome. They become self-conscious, strained, uncomfortable and unable to fully partake in their lives. Policy Manager Emma Trottier and Communications Manager Alys Mumford of Engender wrote: "the ability to manage menstruation with dignity is a privilege reserved for those who can afford it."
An average woman in the UK will use up to 12,000 tampons in her lifetime and spend between £2 to £3 for a box of 20. In total she could be spending approximately £5000 on tampons and other sanitary products during the course of her life. This woman will only experience menstruation from the average age of 14-50 years old. For countless women this is simply a luxury they cannot afford. Those who live under the poverty line have the degrading decision of choosing over food or sanitary products. They are unable to afford some of the most basic health necessities. Jem clarifies: “Women have no choice as to whether they can bleed every month, it's not hard to fix. If we provide free sexual health supplies, we can provide free sanitary products to women in need.”
Even those who have come from a stable financial environment are subjected to this problem. Jane, a university student, experienced this when she moved away from home. She was doing her weekly shop when: “I got to the checkout and I realised I didn't have enough money to buy everything?I needed. My card got rejected and?I?was forced to pick period products over food.” Numerous women have experienced this exact decision. What is more important- food, heating, water or sanitary products?
There is also, the issue of individuals not having enough education regarding menstruation. For instance, the fact women can have very different flows each month i.e. they can interchange between heavy and light. Meaning, women require different types of tampons and sanitary pads. Yet women who rely on charity provision could receive inappropriate products that are not suited to their individual needs. Alys and Emma from Engender stated: “It is a vicious cycle for women and girls who cannot afford to have their period.”
It is sadly, a situation Sian has had to deal with her entire life. She explains, “cheap products aren't enough, they?don’t?hold enough liquid for anyone with a normal or high flow so only branded makes work and they are so expensive and so highly taxed as a 'luxury' brand when they should be a necessity.”
Like many, Jane believes the government should be providing sanitary products free of charge. "They [sanitary products] are too expensive, they shouldn't be something we have to be charged for, this [menstruation] happens to every woman and it's natural, it's not a decision." Alongside her, Sian personally believes: “sanitary products should be free to at least those on low income or at least a basic range should be free for those on all levels of heaviness.”
As there is clearly an abundance of the need to have sanitary products provided for free, it must be asked: what is being done to make free sanitary products a reality?
With only, 35 percent of women being Members of the Scottish Parliament and 29 percent local councilors, it becomes difficult to prioritise the inequality of access to sanitary products. How do we showcase the inequality when the majority do not experience this monthly cycle? The first step altering perceptions was achieved through feminist activists. They managed to campaign for the abolishment on the 5% VAT on sanitary products. The UK Government in 2016 announced it would zero-rate sanitary products and henceforth end the ‘tampon tax.’
The good news as well, is some of the women in parliament are making it their mission to highlight this epidemic. Not only highlight but are also making necessary steps to resolve period poverty within Scotland.
Scottish Labour, MSP Monica Lennon is one of the few trying to make a difference. She states: "access to sanitary products should be a basic right but sadly in Scotland, we know not everyone can afford or obtain what they need." Monica saw a glaring absence in legislation regarding the mandated provision of sanitary products for women. On International Women’s Day (8th of March) she pledged, to introduce a Member’s Bill, which aims to provide free access for women and girls to sanitary products. This would include Schools, colleges and universities supplying tampons and sanitary pads for varying degrees of heaviness of flows. The consultation for the Bill closed on December 8th with widespread support backing it.
If this Bill is to be passed it could help thousands of women and girls in Scotland who are in desperate need to survive their period with dignity. They will no longer have to bare the shame and embarrassment of being unable to afford a basic necessity. They will be able to experience this normal bodily function without any of the added discomfort of using inappropriate and unhygienic methods. They can go to school, university and work without feeling the strain nor worry of having no protective measures against their monthly cycle. It truly is a great step in the right direction.
Period poverty is not only an issue of equality but also, undeniably, a human rights issue. It is without a doubt time, for it to truly be resolved.
Student's at RGU can find a variety of sanitary products stored within the toilet facilities across campus that they can take and use for free.