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.
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.