From Period Poverty to Period Equity

On October 18, De Montfort University called for ‘24 Hours with the Global Goals’ and invited students and staff to address the 17 UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in speed lectures and research showcases. See here for the full programme.

As I have been planning a research project around menstruation management, I took up the opportunity to address #SDG6 ‘Ensure access to water and sanitation for all’ and raise awareness of the pressing issue of period poverty and its consequences for those who experience it.

Period poverty means lacking access to sanitary products, such as pads and tampons, due to financial constraints. Period poverty affects people all over the world including young girls, women, trans-people and those who identify as non-binary and menstruate; however the latter two groups are often overlooked and their insights and experiences are often marginalised.

Period poverty affects 1 in 10 girls attending school, causing them to miss school on the day they menstruate. Bloody Good Period, a project run by the charity ‘Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action’ estimated that those of us who live in the UK and menstruate spend around £4800 in their lifetime on sanitary products, and another survey found that women in the UK spend £13 on menstrual products per month, and another £4.80 on pain relief. To put that into perspective, if you are an asylum seeker, your weekly allowance for food, hygiene, transport, clothing and all other expenses is £37.75. In such a context, it is easy to see how menstrual hygiene products rapidly become a luxury item.

Interviews with people who menstruate and experience period poverty paint a grim picture of what they do to manage their periods, and in my speed lecture at DMU’s #LoveInternational, instead of just listing these creative and desperate attempts of dealing with the flow, I demonstrated it.

People without access to sanitary items are known to tape toilet paper, make-up remover pads, cotton wool or other tissue paper to their underwear. Many of us who have been caught by surprise by our period have probably had experience of wrapping toilet paper around our undies and will know how uncomfortable, inconvenient and limiting in movement this option is. Other ways in which some people, especially those who are homeless might try to manage their period is through the use of newspapers, rags, old socks as well as sponges and even dried moss. Such an approach to menstruation management is not only uncomfortable but also unhygienic.

Period poverty has a significantly negative impact on peoples’ lives, it is stigmatising, isolating, degrading and impacts on one’s dignity and in young people can often mean the sufferer misses out on educational and learning opportunities. As the following excerpt from Kopano Matlwa’s novel ‘Period Pain’ illustrates:

I became a loner. Not because I wanted to be alone, but because it was easier for everyone that way. (…) At school I always sat at the back of the class, making sure there was never anybody behind me, so that if I messed on my school dress, at least I wouldn’t be the last to know. (…) Ballet? Forget it. Synchronised swimming? Are you crazy? Gymnastics? Not even if I was paid. Netball? Risky. Running? Sometimes.

No parties. No sleepovers. Ma wanted none of the humiliation that would come with a phone call from another parent to advice that her daughter had bled all the way through the sheets and into the mattress.

Period Pain, p.12-15

Period poverty can also have a negative impact on reproductive health, as it pushes those who menstruate to overuse menstrual products such as not changing tampons or towels as frequently as is needed. In a survey with girls who had overused their sanitary product, 48% reported impact on their health in form of intimate rashes or urinary tract infections.

The prevalence of period poverty is now being recognised in the news media, and if you look for initiatives that fight for period equity, it is exciting to see the scale, diversity and sheer creativity of their work. It is also humbling to see that a lot of these initiatives come from school girls, and women who escaped period poverty themselves.

A growing number of people and organisations are stepping in to help those in period poverty, teachers have bought sanitary products out of their own pockets and distributed them amongst their students, charities and foodbanks are giving out menstrual pads and tampons, and the De Montfort Students Union has also begun providing free sanitary products for those in need. For those of you on DMU campus who also want to help, you can find a box in Edith Murphy post room which collects donations which are distributed to a shelter in Leicester.

The sixth United Nations Development goal is to ‘ensure access to water and sanitation for all’ and the relevant target point in the goal reads:

“By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.”

However, I suggest the framing of this goal is inherently problematic as it doesn’t even dare use the word ‘period’ and by referring to ‘paying special attention to the needs of women and girls’ it is complicit in the public shaming of menstruation and marginalises and silences the experiences of trans and non-binary people.

Put simply, we need to talk about menstruation: period. We need to put the word in our mouth, we need to spell it out on paper, we need to print it on canvas and contribute to its de-stigmatisation.

There are many ways how we can address period poverty and work towards period equity. We can urge our employers, schools, universities and public services to provide free sanitary products. We can collect and donate to our local charities, foodbanks, women shelters and homeless projects. We can talk about having periods, and de-stigmatise and normalise them, and thereby work to gift the next generation with a healthy body image.

Further future research can examine the mobilisation of period activism and work to determine the most successful way to engage audiences and raise awareness of the struggles of those who experience poverty. We can also work on manufacturing environmentally friendly and biodegradable menstruation products, such as the Indian start-up Saathi that is making pads from banana tree fibres, which requires less water in the production process and makes them biodegradable.

Finally, at the Centre of Reproduction Research we are making period poverty and menstruation management in general one of our future research topics to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals’ and are working on connecting it with our other ongoing research topics, such as endometriosis.

So, watch this space.

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By Dr Christina Weis, Research Fellow

More resources and information about periods and period poverty can be found below:

Dahlqvist, Anna (2018) It’s Only Blood: A Global Perspective on Menstruation and Power. London: Zed Books Ldt
Weiss-Wolf, Jennifer (2017) Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity. New York: Arcade Publishing. [image]

The 8th Repealed: Future directions and lessons for UK politicians

The Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment was a momentous day for abortion politics. Two thirds of Irish voters rejected the idea that a developing foetus had an equal right to life as the pregnant women, thereby sending out a clear signal to their government that the country would no longer tolerate the ban on abortion and the discrimination against pregnant women more generally. Many people believe that the tragic and unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar added momentum to the campaign. Halappanavar was 31 years old when she died from sepsis developed during a miscarriage, her family reported that she was denied an abortion because there was still a foetal heartbeat. This tragic event, and the accounts of women forced to travel overseas to access an abortion, made it clear that rather than a foetus having an equal right to life, women’s lives were in fact a secondary consideration and this situation could no longer be tolerated.   

Women’s stories were a central part of the campaign. The varied accounts of why abortion was necessary for them at that time, and the lengths that they had to go to obtain one illustrated the importance of abortion to women. The diverse and everyday nature of these accounts, coupled with the overwhelmingly positive result in the referendum have contributed to the growing normalisation of abortion. This process of normalisation positions abortion not as a shameful procedure but as an essential aspect of healthcare which women should be able to access if and when they need it. As such, abortion needs to be safe, legal, local, and accessible within public healthcare systems.

The Irish constitutional ban on abortion meant that the whole population needed to vote on the issue. This unique situation means that globally, politicians will be taking notice of the Irish referendum result, not least those in the UK. Abortion is still a crime across the UK, and the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) sets the penalty as life imprisonment for women and anyone who helps them get an abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act provided exceptions, so abortions that met certain conditions would not be unlawful, but this did not, and still does not apply to Northern Ireland. As a result, it is still virtually impossible to get an abortion in Northern Ireland and women are forced to either travel to the mainland or buy abortion pills online and risk prosecution. This legal position contributes to abortion stigma and acts as a chilling environment for health professionals who work in the shadow of prosecution, even if they are providing good clinical care. 

protest fun

There has been a long campaign to legislate so women in Northern Ireland can access abortion, and the Irish referendum result has intensified public attention on this matter. Abortion is considered to be a devolved issue, so an area of legislation for the Northern Ireland Assembly rather than Westminster. But at the time of writing, there has been no government in Stormont (home to the Northern Ireland Assembly) for 17 months, and there is little sign that the issues which led to its collapsed will be agreed soon. In addition, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have already said that they would veto legislation which gave access to abortion even if it received a majority vote in the Assembly. This is no idle threat, their ability to block legislation means that the Assembly’s majority vote for equal marriage has never been enacted. Furthermore, those in Westminster who are currently arguing that it is for the Assembly to decide, know full well that this is, by default, a call to continue to prevent abortion services developing in Northern Ireland.  

Alongside the problem of access in Northern Ireland is the continued insistence that abortion is a conscience issue, and that therefore any proposed legislation should come from the back benches in Westminster rather than from the government. On the one hand, this has meant abortion has not become the political football that it has in the United States between the Republicans and the Democrats. However, this only leaves behind a current legal framework with Victorian era punishment which continues to be a barrier to good clinical practice. The 1967 Abortion Act which was written for a time prior to the development of the abortion pill, is no longer fit for purpose and the current legal framework institutionalises a form of paternalistic medicine that is now almost universally rejected.

pro choice

Access to abortion (at least in some circumstances) has been recognised as a human right. The UK government is responsible for human rights, they are not a devolved issue. Consequently, to pass the buck on responsibility for legislation, either to a non-functioning Assembly or to the back-benches of Parliament is unacceptable. There is overwhelming public support for abortion in the UK, over 90% believe it is necessary in some cases, and nearly 70% that it should be women’s choice. It is about time that politicians recognised that abortion provision is a normal part of women’s healthcare   

Anti-abortion organisations have resources and connections which have often distorted how little public support they have in the UK. The UK government is responsible for human rights, and has repeatedly been censured for failing to provide abortion in Northern Ireland. Whilst it is the case that historically, abortion legislation has always come from the back-benches, part of the normalisation of abortion requires it to be treated as other aspects of healthcare, and in the light of the evidence from Ireland, abortion decriminalisation across the UK should not have to wait on the lottery of private members bills.

Dr Pam Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Aston

Featured image by Rebecca Strickson Illustration

Photos by Pam Lowe