Women’s health in focus

The ‘Tampon Tax’, is receiving a lot of attention: the government is under intense pressure to abolish the 5% VAT currently impose d on sanitary products – the minimum amount permissible under EU law. Concrete looks at some of the other financial and emotional costs of femininity.

As horrifying and infuriating as they are, there are more facts and statistics to menstrual health than those which have been un-earthed, over-analysed and over-repeated many a time in recent weeks.

In 2013, there were 3.52 billion women in the world. A woman’s period lasts from three to seven days and occurs every 28 days. The average menstrual timespan is between the ages of 13 and 51. This means that women, on average, menstruate 456 times: that’s roughly 2,280 days – six years and three months – of every woman’s life.

The UN Human Rights Office Chief on Economic and Social Issues, Jyoti Sanghera, recently called the global stigma around menstruation “a violation of several human rights, most importantly the right to human dignity”.

Nowhere is this more true than Nepal. In many areas of the country, girls are considered unclean, and therefore untouchable, whilst menstruating. Nepali Hinduism adheres to a tradition named Chapaudi, a mentality that dictates that menstruating women are forbidden to eat or sleep inside, share a bed with a male, enter a kitchen or a temple, or, in some cases, even touch another human being. Menstruating females are effectively banished from society every single month. If a girl is found to be menstruating whilst at school, she is sent home immediately and punished for having been sociable and touched books whilst in her ‘unclean’ state.

Given this regular extradition from education and socialisation, it is unsurprising that there is a relatively low level of employment among Nepalese women: only 55%. As a result of this low level of female employment, there is an inevitable reliance upon male income and marital association.

Despite this being common practice, there is little record of how girls and women make meaning of these practices. They exist in society; an unquestioned and therefore, apparently inherent system of biological oppression, of which the impacts last far longer than a woman’s period of fertility.

Regardless of social taboo, women in some nations still face restrictions when it comes to getting hold of sanitary products. In Kenya, there is an active, and literal, prostitution trade for sanitary products. Half of girls as young as 14 years old have been known to sleep with wealthy men more than twice their age in exchange for sanintary towels and tampons.

Even when they do get hold of the products, many young girls are still inclined to take time off school, as they face name calling from their male classmates.

Despite not being remarkably over priced, a packet of eight towels costs on average 40 Kenyan shillings, equivalent to roughly 26 pence, these products are still priced out of many Kenyan women’s budget. With an unemplyment rate of more than 40% among the same population, and an average monthly wage of around $70, sanitary products constitute a large portion of a woman’s outgoings – that is if she has an income.

Medicinal maternal care
From pre-natal services, such as ultrasound scans, through the birthing process and post-natal care, as well as other services, such as abortion, maternity care in the UK is free at the point of access and relatively easy to recieve. This, unfortunately, is not the case the world over.

American healthcare is infamously for its financial inaccessibility, a sentiment that rings true when we examine the cost of birth and maternal care.

The average cost of a vaginal delivery is around $30,000; however, this cost can peak to over $50,000 if a C-section is needed. Howevever, families are often left having to foot around half of the bill, with the average payout for a straightforward birth being $18,329 and $27,866 when the process involves surgical intervention.

Elsewhere, private healthcare is the standard across India and, therefore, so is a high price tag. The average cost of a standard birth in the country is 75,000 rupees, however this can climb to more than 200,000 rupees if a C-section is needed. This may not seem like too high a cost when we consider that 200,000 rupees equates to less than £2,000; however, insurers rarely cover any costs above and beyond 50,000 rupees, meaning that childbirth is an expensive venture for the average Indian family. Whilst the average monthly salary is around 3,000 rupees, many families are reliant upon a sole income as only 32% of Indian women work.

Even more shocking than the cost of child-bearing, perhaps, are the costs incured when a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy, be that a choice of either health or lifestyle.

Abortion in Mexico carries a far greater burden than the financial cost alone. Only recently legalised, and not done so nationwide, abortion in Mexico is, for many, still a taboo subject.

Women can have an abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in 13 of 31 Mexican provinces. The average cost of an uncomplicated procedure is between 79 and 143 dollars. However, the same cannot be said of procedures that encounter complications for either the mother or the foetus, something that occurs 10 – 15% of the time. More complex procedures can cost upwards of $2,000.

To contextualise, the average monthly salary in Mexico is $1,070, meaning that an abortion could equal the equivalent of two months’ wages.

The difficulties do not stop here, however. Women found to have had an abortion, or even in some cases, a miscarriage, are routinely accused of murder and could face jail, an experience that would render many women unemployable in the eyes of businesses for the rest of her life. 679 women were sentenced as a result of a miscarriage or abortion between 2009 and 2011.

However, these issues also lurk a lot closer to home. Abortion in Ireland is currently universally outlawed, unless a direct problem of the pregnancy is actively killing the mother. The rule that has resulted in several complicated legal cases over the years.

In 2012, Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who was working in Ireland at the time, died during childbirth as a result of a bacterial infection. She had reported this infection to a doctor at 17 weeks pregnant, believing herself to be miscarrying. This problem was reported on several occasions during Halappanavar’s pregnancy. However, because she seemed physically well and the baby had a heartbeat, she was refused the termination.

It is obviously difficult for Irish women to gain access to abortion services at home, and as a result, 4,500 women decide to travel to the UK for a termination, every year.

From conception to week nine of pregnancy, a termination costs €570 under local anaesthetic, or €590 under a general anaesthetic. These figures, perhaps as expected, increase expenentially as the pregnancy progresses, totalling €1,650 for a procedure carried out if a woman is between 19 and 24 weeks pregnant, the latest an abortion can be requested (without medical grounds) in the UK.
These costs do not account for travel expenses: a large, additional, yet necessary expense. A return flight from Manchester to Dublin booked at seven days notice (19th November) is €73 when flying with Aer Lingus. The cheapest Manchester hotel for the same date was €40 according to Expedia.

Therefore, an Irish woman seeking an abortion between 19 and 24 weeks pregnant would pay a minimum of €1,763 for her ordeal.

The workplace
It was revealed last week that, as a result of the cavernous gender pay gap, British women would, in effect, be working for free from 9th November until the New Year.

Although Britain’s 15% gender pay gap would have to stretch quite significantly to rival that of South Korea, the worst gender pay gap in the world at a whopping 37.5%, the salary gap in other ‘developed nations’ is staggering

In Australia, a woman would have to work 66 days more than a male in an equivalent role to make the same amount of money.

Regardless of inherent office pay gaps, it is a widely known fact that women’s salaries often suffer if and when they decide have children; they can even cease to exist in their entirey. An estimated 30,000 women in Britain lose their jobs after getting pregnant every year. However, just to add insult to injury, it seems that men profit whilst women lose out. According to research by the New York Times, while women lose an average 4% of their salary as a result of motherhood, a man salary increases by an average of 6% when he reaches fatherhood. Whereas women are deemed to be more unreliable when they enter parenthood, more likely to take time off work and more likely to be distracted whilst there, men are deemed to be more socially stable, and therefore more relaible and in greater need of a stable wage; it seems that we still have a long way to go before the breadwinner versus caregiver sterotypes are broken.


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October 2021
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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