After Gemma Abbott began volunteering with The Red Box Project, a community initiative that distributes free menstrual products and underwear to young women in the UK, she was shocked by some of the stories she heard.
“I vividly remember one woman who approached me at an awareness-raising stall in a supermarket, to tell me that she had grown up without sufficient menstrual protection,” recalls Abbott, a lawyer, mum-of-two and volunteer co-ordinator for the project. “She had fretted about leaks and smells, to the point that she had simply stopped attending school during her period.”
This woman didn’t grow up in a rural village in one of the world’s poorer countries, but in the fourth richest country in the world. And her experience of period poverty – which refers, according to the global charity Action Aid, to poor “access to sanitary products and safe, hygienic spaces in which to use them” – is not uncommon.
According to statistics quoted by #FreePeriods, one in 10 girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products in the UK while over 137,700 children in the country have missed school because of period poverty. “It’s really quite absurd when you think about it. We don’t expect children to pack their own toilet roll and soap in their bags,” says Abbott.
Around the world, from rich industrialised countries to poorer countries in the Global South, there is a growing call to ensure that all women and girls can menstruate with dignity. Period poverty, and the various stigmas that surround menstruation, have an adverse effect on the health, education, employment and livelihoods of tens of millions of women and girls around the world.
According to figures from Channel Four fact checkers, women and girls in the UK spend about £10 on average per month on their periods. And despite the fact that sanitary products are a necessity and not a luxury, half of the countries in the European Union apply a so-called ‘Tampon Tax’ (a VAT levy at the same rate as tobacco, beer and wine) to sanitary towels and tampons. Staggeringly, in ten of these countries, the VAT rate is over 20 per cent.
More access to menstrual products – and less menstrual stigma
Chris Bobel, professor and chair of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says there is now more interest in menstrual activism than ever before. But by focusing the core of menstruation activism on products, attention has shifted away from the underlying issue of menstrual stigma: “Shame, silence and secrecy, after all, is the root of what makes menstruation a challenge for everyone, especially those living on the margins,” says Bobel.
However, the need for menstrual interventions are more obvious and urgent in developing countries, points out Sophia Grinvalds, the co-founder and director of the Uganda-based social business AFRIPads. Since it was founded in 2010, AFRIPads has distributed more than 3.5 million kits containing reusable pads to girls and women predominantly in east Africa but reaching as far as Afghanistan and Nepal.
“Products need to be available, appropriate and affordable – but products alone are not a solution,” Grinvalds tells Equal Times. She is also calling for more focus to be put on menstrual hygiene management (which not only means having the right materials to absorb menstrual blood but the safe and hygienic means to dispose of said materials), along with the various cultural norms that stigmatise menstruating women and girls.
“Some of the girls we work with get their first period without having a basic comprehension of what is happening to them, why they are bleeding, and the skills they need to manage their period themselves,” Grinvalds tells Equal Times.
“Issues around the affordability of menstrual products are often seen as key contributors to ‘period poverty’, but the reality in the Global South is much more complex,” she continues.
In Nepal, for example, the ancient Hindu practice of chaupadi sees some rural women confined to huts for the duration of their period as they are considered impure. There they are vulnerable to attacks from wild animals and violence from local men.
In other cultures, Grinvalds says, “it is believed that if a menstruating woman walks through a garden the crops will die, which in an agricultural society can deter a girl from walking to school or a woman from harvesting food.”
There are many charities that are working to go beyond basic measures tackling menstrual stigma or improving access to sanitary products, by engaging boys and men in education and advocacy, for example, or by pushing for measures such as gender-sensitive toilet infrastructures.
James Malinga is the executive director of Mountains of Hope Children’s Ministries, an NGO based in Mpigi, Uganda working to empower marginalised rural communities. Since 2014, Mountains of Hope has been training both girls and boys to make hygienic reusable sanitary pads using terrycloth, poplin cloth, fine polythene and velcro. The NGO also works to dismantle menstruation stigma by holding menstrual sensitization training, as well as discussions with school authorities, parents and church leaders about the need for separate toilets for girls and boys.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of examples of governments, NGOs and individuals fighting to improve women and girls’ experience of menstruation. In 2004, neighbouring Kenya became the first country in the world to repeal a tax on sanitary products. Since 2011, the government has allocated about US$3 million every year to provide free products in schools in low-income areas, although demand continues to outstrip supply.
In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, social entrepreneur Arunchalam Muruganantham was celebrated in the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary Period. End of Sentence for enabling rural women to make their own biodegradable sanitary pads, which they sell to other women at low prices, thus stimulating micro-entrepreneurship.
And in the Global North, last year the Scottish government became the world’s first to provide free sanitary products to students at schools, colleges and universities.
“Of course, access to period products isn’t always about income,” says Monica Lennon, the Scottish politician who introduced the bill because she was concerned about the impact of austerity and cuts to public services on women and girls. “It can also be impacted by a range of issues including someone’s profession, place of work or wider social issues like domestic violence and coercive control, where period products can be withheld as a means of controlling or moderating a woman’s behaviour.”
Lennon is now behind another bill which would establish universal free access to period products for anyone who needs them. “The next challenge we face is actually changing the culture so that acceptance follows access – and that we can reduce the stigma around periods,” she says. “I’m excited for the possibilities that lie ahead.”
England is further behind on progress, but this March the UK government agreed to fundfree period products for all schools and colleges, putting The Red Box Project in the extraordinary position of having reached its target after just three years.
Abbott stresses that The Red Box is stepping back to ensure that they don’t jeopardise the success of the government scheme, which starts in January 2020. However, they are determined to ensure that the government’s policies are implemented fully and sustainably, and that an equivalent provision is made in Northern Ireland.
“Access to free products is just the first step on the road to true equality – we must tackle the stigma that prevails around menstruation, and drastically improve education that is given to kids growing up in our country,” says Abbott, who is also a director of the #FreePeriods campaign.
“The #FreePeriods movement is focused on ensuring that the government’s policy changes are meaningful and sustained, and that campaigners in other jurisdictions are also supported to address legal inequalities that hamper children’s access to education.”