By: Dorcas Onabanjo Illustration: Natalie Byrne
In your lifetime you will come across a vagina and/or a womb, either you own one, you were developed in one or you entered the world through one. This being the case, I’d like to shed light on something that the average woman, living in a developed country, takes for granted- sanitary products. Periods can be a taboo subject but it is something that must be discussed. Especially when millions of girls across the globe are affected daily because they cannot afford sanitary products, they don’t have enough information on menstruation, or they lack the facilities needed to have their period in comfort.
Women make up half the population (49.6% to be exact) and still our health issues are either placed on the back burner or deliberated and decided over by men- and most men in high power positions show very little interest in women's issues and/or deem them unimportant most of the time. In the UK, over the course of a woman’s lifetime, she will spend over £18K on sanitary products and in the USA, feminine products are a $2 billion-dollar a year industry. A great deal of money is made from this inevitable biological process and yet many women cannot afford these products nor do they have safe, sanitary spaces to clean and wash themselves whilst on their period. Three years ago, the United Nations declared feminine health and sanitation a public health issue and three years later, it is still considered a public health issue.
Puberty is a difficult time for everyone, hormones are raging and your body is changing. Navigating all this with the added stress of not being able to gather some pieces of “comfort” in the face of discomfort is disappointing and we, as a society, need to do better. We are failing our girls. We are showing them from a young age that this biological process, of which they cannot avoid, isn’t worth our care or time. We are showing them that feminine health is not important. We are, yet again, showing them that women’s issues are negligible.
The lack of provision of sanitation and safe spaces as well as sanitary products, is putting forward the idea that they are luxuries, only to be experienced by those in wealthier nations. This is a disgrace and is also telling of the burgeoning inequality of the current socio-political climate. If every woman worldwide cannot experience a vital part of womanhood, in the same comfortable capacity without hindrance to their daily lives, this is privilege. Period poverty is another brain-child of the rife inequality in the world- which can also be attributed to capitalism and the placing of monetary value on something that should be a right.
The issue of Period Poverty also brings to light the issue of poor sanitation for women, it is simply another example of how the word dignity is a privilege rather than a right. In many developing countries, women deal with the not being able to afford sanitary products. In addition to not having adequate sanitation to simply have a shower or bath during their period, they are unable to clean the cloth they’re using instead of a sanitary product. Picture this: you’re a 12 year-old school girl in India, it’s the summer with an average temperature of 40 degrees celsius, and you’ve just gotten your period. You don’t have any pads or tampons to stem the ever constant flow, but you do have a well-worn cloth that you feel has soaked up all it possibly can, so you just sit there, bleeding in class, knowing that soon enough, it’ll show up on your uniform and the toilet at school has no running water so the cloth you are using cannot be rinsed out, washed, or changed. What do you do to avoid this situation in the future? Do you go to school knowing that you’ll be sitting uncomfortably for the rest of the day while trying your best to ignore the giggles and whispers in your direction, or do you stay at home where you will still be in discomfort. This is a reality for many girls in India and other developing countries.
It is inconceivable that girls living in the 21st century miss school because they have no access to sanitation or feminine hygiene products. Did you know, there are an estimated 31 million girls out of school worldwide, many of whom are not in school because they don’t have sanitary products or the means to change their cloth?
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, progress is being made in the legislature. In Kerala, India, the government has developed a program that distributes free pads across 300 schools. In Kenya, the government has pledged to give free pads to school girls. In other countries social awareness is also improving. In Bollywood, for instance, there is a film being released called Padman. It is a film based on the true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a husband who developed a cost-effective method of producing sanitary pads after witnessing his wife struggle with using dirty rags during her period.
The developing world is stepping up and the developed world needs to follow suit. In the US, 1 in 8 women live in poverty, for these women, feminine hygiene products are yet another burden. A year’s supply of tampons and pads in the US costs more than $160 per year, which has been estimated to be over $1,800 over the course of a lifetime. Women should not have to choose between eating or being able to afford sanitary products.
It’s important to note when discussing Period Poverty, in the developed world, that homeless women are affected most. Homelessness alone is difficult and comes with plenty of health issues; however, homelessness as a woman comes with a different set of risks and stressors. The inability to clean yourself as often as you’d like or being able to change if you leak can be dehumanizing for a woman. Women in the UK also have to deal with this issue. Recently, there were reports of young girls in Leeds using old socks instead of pads during their periods. They were regularly missing school, as they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary products. It’s not surprising that the average cost of sanitary products for women in the UK, over a lifetime, is “the same amount as a deposit on a house,” as one of my male friends stated incredulously.
So, if my male friend is incredulous and can understand the severity, why is the male-dominated government so quiet? Why have they ignored petitions to get rid of the Tampon Tax? Taxing sanitary products as luxury goods?! How about you have your uterus cramp and shed its lining and then tell me it’s a luxury. Oh, and FYI, all those times you guys tell us we’re being “dramatic” when describing our cramps, did you know it’s been medically proven that cramps can be just as painful as a heart attack?
Don’t fear men. I, a woman, have some suggestions that will fix this issue. Listen up:
First, the Tampon Tax. Yes, that needs to go. It is not enough that only a few states in the US have scrapped the tax, it needs to occur across all 50 states and the UK government needs to get rid of it, as well.
Second, sanitary products need to be subsidized, especially for those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Did you know US food stamps or other government assistance programs do not cover sanitary products for women. They are forced to pay for these necessities on their own.
Third, making money off female biological occurrences needs to end– especially since most companies profiting are dominated by men. Why am I paying money for a tampon/pad in the toilet when the toilet paper is free? FYI, using toilet paper to tide you over isn’t the same thing. Furthermore, why are condoms given out for free at clinics? You would think it goes without saying, but tampons should be given to us for free, as well. We need to convey the message that menstrual health is just as important as [men’s] sexual health.
Finally, schools. Tampons and pads should be given out for free as a government initiative. Special shout out to the schools out there who stock up in the nurse’s office by using money from their budget. And a major shout out to the school nurses out there who use their own money to buy these products for our young girls.
Period Poverty is a serious issue. Women deserve to feel comfortable during a time which can be of great discomfort. We deserve dignity regardless of our financial status. The right for dignity should not be exclusive or reserved for the privileged few.
If you want to find out more about period poverty and what you can do to help, check out the list below! I’ve included a list of charities, both in the US and the UK, which work to combat period poverty.
I’ll leave you with the words of the late, great Tupac Shakur, “I think it’s time to heal our women, be real to our women.” Amen…or should I say, A-woman?
U.S. & UK Charities: