At last, local councils, schools, colleges and supermarkets are waking up to the fact that there are many women here in the UK who are unable to afford basic sanitary products to use when they are menstruating. SAFIYA YOUNG looks at how things have improved around the subject of the monthly period, but says we still have some way to go.

Period poverty is a reality rarely brought to our attention. The majority of us probably pick up most of our knowledge from the charity adverts in public toilets. Even then, these tend to focus on other countries. So, it may surprise us that 1 in 7 women and girls are affected by period poverty here in the UK. Many have no choice but to take time off work or school during their period and 42% have had to resort to makeshift period products such as toilet paper. Wealth is one of Britain’s biggest inequalities and, since lockdown, issues like period poverty have become more pronounced. Before the pandemic, 1 in 10 women and girls could not afford menstrual products. That figure has now increased to 3 in 10. 

CREDIT: Unsplash

In April 2017, Amika George started a petition calling for free period products to be given to students on free school meals who menstruate. In January 2020, the government launched a scheme to provide menstrual products to every state school and college in the country. However, only 40% have opted in so far. 

Some authorities, such as East Sussex Libraries and Morrison’s, are now offering free period products, as well as some local schools and colleges. There are currently PeriodBanks in Hastings and Eastbourne libraries where you can find free tampons, pads and reusable products. You don’t have to ask; all the products are free to take and there is no limit as to how many times you can go back. So far, this service has been very useful to the community. Any donations of period products into the donation bins in both libraries would be greatly appreciated to keep this service running. In Morrison’s, you can ask for ‘a package for Sandy’ at any customer service kiosk to receive free products.

Scotland is the first country to provide free period products to everyone. France has plans to make them free to university students from this September. Our government finally abolished tampon tax in January, something that was long overdue. However, there are many countries that still consider period products to be
a luxury rather than a necessity. Is it a lack of empathy and knowledge? Is it misogyny? Period products have been used for centuries, whether our ancestors’ pieces of cloth and rolls of grass or our modern-day pads and tampons. It is certainly a disregard for women’s suffering that stops them being thought of as essential. A disregard that in 2021, we should have no place for.

One reason why period poverty goes unnoticed is because menstruation has been branded as disgusting or shameful. We avoid mentioning it explicitly by saying ‘that time of the month’, ‘a visit from Aunt Flo’ or even ‘female troubles’. In fact, there are about 5,000 slang words used to refer to menstruation in 10 different languages, according to the International Women’s Health Coalition. This creates an atmosphere where people who menstruate are unable to talk openly about aspects of their lives. Therefore, a natural function becomes something to be ashamed of, causing women all over the world to suffer in silence. In 1973, Dr Robin Lakoff wrote that “speech about women implies an object, whose sexual nature requires euphemism.” A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression used to refer to something unpleasant or embarrassing. George Orwell, known for his preference for truth, even suggested that this sort of cycle of euphemisms and vague writing could be used to reinforce orthodoxy.

Raising awareness is the first step towards combatting period poverty and eventually removing the stigma around periods. Why is it that our identities are defined by the amount of suffering we can endure? We fear being ‘the nagging one’, ‘the one who always complains’, ‘the hysterical one’. ‘Hysterical’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘of the womb’ and has been used to trivialise the arguments of women who speak out for centuries. Some believe that the term ‘lunatic’, from the Latin ‘luna’ for ‘moon’, may also refer to menstruation as it describes a madness thought to be caused by the monthly cycle of the moon. Though, fortunately, the ‘men’ in ‘menstruation’ and ‘menopause’ is a coincidence. They come from a Latin word meaning ‘month’. Our Old English equivalent was ‘monaðblot’ (monathblot), which means ‘month blood’.

Our attitude towards menstruation has definitely come a long way (though there is always room for improvement). There are now initiatives and organisations devoted to combatting period poverty, such as Heygirls and Bloody Good Period. These are UK charities with the goal of providing free sanitary products to those in need and promoting education about menstruation. They aim to provide sustainable products where possible, which you can find on their website. Every product bought from Heygirls also donates one to someone in need. 

Above all, periods are slowly becoming less of a taboo. Even in 1946, Disney released a cartoon documenting ‘The Story of Menstruation’, which was the first time the word ‘vagina’ was said on TV. Period products have also greatly improved. In the 1800s, women wore pants lined with rubber and suspended cloth pads from belts. Though charities are now promoting reusable period pants and panty-liners for convenience and sustainability, they tend to be made of bamboo fibres and are much less clunky. 

In a 2002 interview, Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel into space in 1983, recalled the predicament of taking menstrual products as part of her kit:

“I remember the engineers trying to decide how many tampons should fly on a one-week flight; they asked, ‘Is 100 the right number??’

‘No. That would not be the right number.’

They said, ‘Well, we want to be safe.’

I said, ‘Well, you can cut that in half with no problem at all.’” 

If you need period products, find them free of charge at Hastings library or Morrison’s. Find out if your local school or college is part of the government free period scheme, and if not, suggest it to them. Lastly, please donate any products you can to help those in need.

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