Global, Global Investigates

Global Investigates: The Global Issue of Period Poverty

Menstruation is a biological cycle in which the lining of a uterus sheds and causes a discharge of blood for anywhere from 2-7 days on average. Periods are different for every menstruator, they can be light, medium, or heavy and can be either very painful or not painful at all. Those who have never experienced menstruation tend to dismiss the symptoms or use phrases like “are you on your period?” or “is it that time of the month again?”, which comes across as extremely insensitive and dismissive to the menstruator.

Periods can be a huge burden physically, financially, and mentally, yet there are still some areas of the world that refuse to acknowledge the severe issue of period poverty, especially in underdeveloped countries. Only in the last couple of years has there been a small decrease in period product prices, only coming into effect in very few places.

Period poverty is a “lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints”, for those unaware, there was a “tampon tax”, a VAT on sanitary products of five percent in the UK since 2001, that was only abolished at the start of 2021. The menstruation cycle is a completely natural process, yet those who experience it are expected to pay for sanitary care, even though it is not a choice. In fact, around 30 of America’s 50 states charge “tampon tax” as the products are considered non-essential, reinforcing period poverty through the tax system.

On average, a single menstruator spends almost seven years on their period throughout their lifetime and those who experience periods spend an average of £13 a month in this country. Also in the UK, one in ten of those who have a period cannot afford to buy products because of these prices. Worldwide, 1.25 million women and girls don’t have access to a safe or private toilet meaning they have to resort to other measures, especially during their monthly cycle. Moreover, period cramps or other symptoms can be extremely debilitating and can cause young girls to miss school and vital education, and that’s if they’re lucky enough to have it.

The reason a lot of people don’t refer to menstruators as purely women and girls is because there are many trans or non-binary amongst other identities who still go through periods, and these identities struggle with higher rates of poverty and not being able to afford sanitary items.

To understand period poverty in the modern world, it is important to be familiar with the evolution of period products. In the ancient world lint, cotton, papyrus, wool or even grass and animal skin were used to soak up period blood, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century that there began to be progress in women’s reproductive health. In 1839, the contraceptive diaphragm, a rubber cup-like protection against fertilisation, was created by Charles Goodyear and in the 20 years following, there would be many attempts and failures at creating safer solutions for women during menstruation. 1873 saw the word “feminine hygiene” being coined to describe anything related to periods or contraception. By the end of the 1800s, the first sanitary pad by Johnson and Johnson was invented, also known as ‘sanitary napkins’ but unfortunately flopped shortly after.

In the Edwardian era, sanitary aprons, belts, and bloomers were introduced for menstruators, as well as a pain relief called Midol being sold. Nowadays, in this climate, the menstrual cup has gained popularity, but it was first produced in the 1930s by Lenna Chalmers barely being bought and used, also in this decade Dr Earle Haas made the first applicator tampon which was then bought and sold (and even hand-sewn for a while) by Tampax’s female founder. The non-applicator tampon was introduced in the fifties as well as a resurgence of the menstrual cup.

The 1960s was a revolutionary period, especially for women fighting in the second wave of feminism, leading to the first contraceptive pill being approved and adhesive mini sanitary pads being made and sold. Up until the seventies, television had banned adverts that had anything to do with periods, contributing to the stigma around women’s sexual health. In the late seventies and early eighties, a brand called Rely sold tampons which were quickly taken off the market because of the toxic shock syndrome links,which we’ll talk about later on.

From the 1990s to the present day, there have been many advances in the safety of tampons, and more and more period products are being designed to be environmentally friendly, and the menstrual cup has come back into fashion because of the climate benefits and cost-efficiency. Most menstruators still use regular tampons and pads as it’s all that’s accessible to them, but nowadays there have been a lot of environmentally friendly developments in the making of such products.

The problem of period poverty still persists but there have been small but steady changes on the policy with menstruation in some places, most notably, Scotland became the first-ever country back in 2020 to make period products completely free. The bill was campaigned and brought to the table by Monica Lennon, a Labour MSP, who has worked to help end period poverty years prior to this, and millions have been donated by the Scottish government in regard to this.

Countries including Kenya, Canada, Australia, Nigeria, and many other places have reduced the prices of sanitary products. In 2017, Tesco became the first superstore to decrease the “tampon tax” by five percent in the UK. These are small changes which ultimately will prove to be effective in the long run.

However, there is still the dismissal of the safety of menstruators, especially those of the younger generations. The lack of access to safe period products can cause some to use makeshift products of their own with newspaper, toilet roll, items of clothing, plastic bags and many more, which puts people at risk of catching infections from bacteria. But also, research has found that around 71% of those ages 14-21 feel embarrassed buying products, let alone openly discussing their periods.

Toxic Shock Syndrome, which mostly affects people who use tampons and even contraceptive diaphragms is caused by bacteria that live on the skin, but in some cases the bacteria can release very harmful tissues that can cause tissue damage, or unfortunately in some cases, shut down organs. The syndrome and fatality rates have plummeted since the 1980s, but there is still a great risk of infection, and the reason it’s mostly associated with tampon use is the fact that if tampons are left in for longer than advised, it encourages bacteria growth.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, period poverty has surged, especially during the first lockdown due to product shortages and price inflation. Fortunately, there have been charities and individuals that have raised money or donated many period products to those in need of them, more now than ever. Most charities that aim to help people who menstruate or marginalised individuals in need, provide donations for these people to put towards healthcare etc. but the Bloody Good Period charity provides the product itself via material donations. Other charities that focus on menstruation issues are The Homeless Period, Girlguiding, and ActionAid.

There are many ways to go about lessening period poverty, whether individually or collectively, but the more attention to this problem, the better. Scotland’s decision to alleviate the financial burden of sanitary products inspired other places to do the same or something of a similar indication, showing the knock-on effect these kinds of policies can have.

If you’re reading this article and wondering if, as an individual, you can make any change, you absolutely can! If you have any spare period products you don’t need or don’t mind donating there’s a donation bin in the SU shop, just as well you can donate to charities that tackle period poverty. There are also many petitions to sign, but even just sharing a post that talks about menstruation in any way on social media lessens the stigma surrounding it and educates others on the topic, drawing attention to the struggles of those who menstruate go through every month.

The more recognition this issue gains, the quicker the alarmingly high rates of period poverty will gradually start to minimise, but it’s important to acknowledge that period poverty isn’t just as simple as not being able to use tampons, it is an implication of the far bigger issue of womens’ sexual health that tends to be brushed aside more often than not.

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Sienna Norris

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August 2022
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