Period poverty - A global issue that’s local

Period poverty - A global issue that’s local

  • Salma Ghafoor

I am sure you have all heard in recent media how sanitary products are taxed at 5% as they are considered to be ‘luxury items’, but were you aware that Jaffa cakes and flapjacks are classed as essential thus not taxed?[4]

Period poverty can be defined in many ways, more broadly speaking as a lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and waste management.”[6] Often in discussions relating to period poverty, people tend to suggest how periods are not as expensive as presumed or ‘made out to be’, as cheaper products can be found. Supermarket-made “cheaper alternatives” are often not of adequate quality especially for those with heavy flows. Abnormally heavy menstrual bleeding, medically known as menorrhagia – has been linked to unhealthy diets and obesity – both of these are heavily associated with being from a lower socioeconomic background.[2] So, the most expensive, and thus most “heavy-flow-proof” sanitary products are often required by those who are less likely to be able to afford them. Gloria Steinem notably discussed the consequences of what the world would look like if men menstruated – think about it for a minute.[8] Period poverty is not just another aspect of poverty: it’s the epitome of a society being ridden with gender inequalities.

It is not just a burden exclusively for women to worry about – according to UNICEF, just over a quarter of people in the world have adequate handwashing facilities.[5] Not having clean water inevitably makes it challenging for women and young girls to manage their periods with safety and dignity. This paired with an ever-increasing conflict-ridden world means displaced women are affected the worst. Females, especially in refugee camps, are increasingly forced to resort to using unhygienic cloths in unsanitary conditions. In crises, charities like UNICEF provide ‘dignity kits’ to females, which includes menstrual products but also torches and safety whistles for when using toilet facilities – as women in refugee camps are often targeted with rape and sexual abuse.[5] 65% of females in a Nairobi slum had traded sex for sanitary pads in the past.[10] Women dread using basic toilet facilities in fear of being raped, so imagine how they feel when they have to go every few hours when menstruating? They don’t. Which makes them inevitably more at risk of physical health issues, such as urinary tract infections and reproductive issues.

When most people think of poverty in the UK, they (rightfully) think of food banks, homelessness and unemployment, but often people do not consider how the females in those scenarios are impacted – especially regarding their menstrual health.[1] This isn’t just an issue restricted to those in the “east” or in “poorer countries”, period poverty is very much evident in the UK – over 137,000 children in the UK have missed school because of being unable to afford sanitary products or not wanting to put extra ‘burden’ by asking for products on their already financially-struggling parents.[11] If a girl misses school every time she has her period, in a year, she is approximately 2 months behind. So, in 5 years, she has already missed a whole year of education. Moreover, homeless women are particularly vulnerable in the UK – and consistently fail to be supported by the English government. Last year, the Scottish government were the first in the world to launch a scheme to provide free sanitary products to low-income women across Scotland.[3] The NHS too, unfortunately, has failed throughout the past to provide access to sanitary products to female inpatients; this particularly affects mental health inpatients who are on the ward for extended periods of time.[3] In an investigation conducted by the BMA, 42% of nationwide NHS trusts were found to not provide sanitary products for their inpatients at all or would only supply them in case of an emergency.[7] Thankfully, this has changed from April 2019 after revisions to the NHS’s standard contract for hospitals.[9]

So, what can YOU do? I am not asking all of you reading this to go and dedicate your electives to help menstruating women in need! Every little counts – maybe just raise more awareness, donate to your local period bank. Ask the women in your life if they are struggling, and maybe buy them a pack every now and then? As a future healthcare professional, it is vital for us to notice telling signs for women in at-risk groups. In particular, when encountering women from BAMER (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic & Refugee) groups, who are more likely to face period poverty. Do they use cloths? Do they know the options that they have instead? Do they realise how this can affect their physical health? This is especially vital in primary healthcare services. So many people turn a blind eye to menstruation-related issues as they do not think it is their problem to worry about and forget that it happens locally, so do not question it. In the medical field especially, there should be no reason to be ashamed to talk about such a pressing issue – we are at a vital point to access and support SO many women with just a simple conversation.

Menstruation Matters, our mission: To provide BAMER community women fleeing sexual or domestic abuse (FGM, honour-based violence, forced marriage and sex trafficking) with free sanitary products in local Sheffield shelters.

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References: [1] Abbott G. (Aug 2018) Let’s make period poverty history. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/25/lets-make-period-poverty-history-girls-miss-school-sanitary-products [Accessed 21/04/19]

[2] Hapangama DK, Bulmer JN. (Jan 2016) Pathophysiology of Heavy Menstrual Bleeding. Women’s Health (London) 12(1): 3-13.

[3] Matthews-King A. (Mar 2019) NHS hospitals told to provide free tampons in victory for period poverty campaigners. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/nhs-period-poverty-tampons-sanitary-products-hospital-a8804356.html [Accessed 25/04/19]

[4] Oppenheim M. (Feb 2019) Period poverty has caused more than quarter of women to miss work or school, poll finds. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/period-poverty-women-miss-school-work-office-money-sexism-a8786146.html [Accessed 22/04/19]

[5] Press Release. FAST FACTS: Nine things you didn’t know about menstruation (May 2018) Available from: https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/fast-facts-nine-things-you-didnt-know-about-menstruation#_edn5 [Accessed 23/04/19]

[6] Sanchez E, Rodriquez L. (Feb 2019) Period Poverty: Everything You Need To Know. Available from: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/period-poverty-everything-you-need-to-know/ [Accessed 21/04/19]

[7] Sanitary product provision for inpatients (Mar 2019) Available from: https://www.bma.org.uk/collective-voice/policy-and-research/public-and-population-health/sanitary-product-provision-for-inpatients [Accessed 22/04/19]

[8] Steinem G. (1978, October). If men could menstruate: A political fantasy. Ms, p.110

[9] The NHS in England will offer free tampons and other sanitary products to every hospital patient who needs them (Mar 2019) Available from: https://www.england.nhs.uk/2019/03/the-nhs-in-england-will-offer-free-tampons-and-other-sanitary-products-to-every-hospital-patient-who-needs-them-simon-stevens-announced-today/ [Accessed 22/04/19]

[10] Tull K. (2019) Period poverty impact on the economic empowerment of women. K4D Helpdesk report 536. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.

[11] https://www.freeperiods.org/mission [Accessed 22/04/19]