period poverty hurts women for the rest of their lives

“We have heard stories of women using the insoles of their shoes to prevent bleeding, twigs with cloth wrapped around them - and the use of tissue is a favourite with school girls.”

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Jul 23 2018, 3:12pm

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Women shouldn’t have to pay because they bleed. Periods are annoying enough irrespective of the fact we must shell out four quid for a box of absorbent tissue paper every month. You feel dizzyingly light-headed, famished, emotionally sensitive. But while buying tampons is an annoyance for most, it’s an impossibility for some.

For society’s most vulnerable women, extensive government cuts to welfare has left them without enough money to pay for sanitary items. They are victims of what has come to be referred to as “period poverty”. Either they forgo hygiene and comfort, or they don’t eat. The issue is exacerbated by the UK’s “tampon tax” -- the VAT on sanitary products -- that raises the cost of tampons by classifying them as “luxury items” much in the same way lipstick is. As destitution grows, dignity has become a luxury for women.

We spoke to Amika George, a teenager campaigning against period poverty, who explained why the cost of sanitary products is a sexist issue: “Men have all their sanitary needs addressed, they walk into a public toilet and have access to soap, hand wash and toilet paper, but the sanitary needs of women are charged for (often at an exorbitant price). Jaffa Cakes and vodka jellies are considered essential items and are, therefore, not subject to tax, but somehow menstrual products are considered non-essential? We are seeing a gender tax here, penalising us for being women.”

The issue of period poverty is spreading across the UK. Charities ordinarily donating sanitary pads in Kenya are now being called to Leeds. Last year alone, more than 137,000 girls missed school because they didn’t have access to sanitary products, with up to one in 10 girls aged 14 to 21 unable to afford them. The problem is so overwhelming that last year the Labour party pledged to commit £10m to ending period poverty in schools in England. Scotland has already begun offering free sanitary products to low income women. The UK is the sixth richest country on the globe, and while period poverty shouldn’t happen anywhere, we have the means to end this problem here, now.

The issue is not just embarrassment of ruined knickers, period poverty imparts long-term harm onto a woman’s quality of life. Victoria Abrahams, a trustee of Leeds-based charity Freedom4Girls that seeks to end period poverty, explains: “There is an increased risk of infection when a woman cannot manage her flow appropriately. We have heard stories of women using the insoles of their shoes to prevent bleeding on herself, twigs with cloth wrapped around them and the use of tissue is a favourite with school girls. Each of these makeshift ideas increases the likelihood of bacterial and fungal infections.”

These physical effects often swell into enduring psychological problems, “Women on their periods are already more likely to encounter stress and anxiety,” Victoria says, “having to contend with no pads or tampons increases this stress. It will also exacerbate other probable pre-existing mental health issues that living in poverty causes. These women will feel dehumanised from being unable to manage something happening to their bodies.”

Period poverty makes its sufferers anxious, isolated and lonely. A recent survey found that nearly two thirds of those who endure period poverty lack confidence because of bullies at school, while 39 percent now suffer from anxiety or depression. The same amount said that they don’t have many friends and find it difficult to socialise.

"The issue is not just a couple of blood stains, period poverty stains women’s lives as well."

Plagued by a damaged confidence, those who struggled to afford sanitary products are less likely to do well in their careers and will continue to struggle with money for the rest of their lives. They are less likely to have completed their GCSEs, or go on to sit A-levels. After finishing their education, 44 percent of women who have been through period poverty struggled to find employment. This is 20 percent higher than the figure of women who have never been through the same issues. As a consequence, the majority of women who had experienced period poverty now suffer money troubles, with four in ten admitting they’re sometimes unable to keep up with demands for payment. The issue is not just a couple of blood stains, period poverty stains women’s lives as well.

With so many women traumatised, how has period poverty been allowed to go on for so long? A lot of it has to do with the invisibility of the problem. There’s an exhausting stigma surrounding menstruation. Society works to make women embarrassed of our periods to the point where they’re erased from the cultural landscape, hidden away in clean white bins and bolted toilet doors. The sense of taboo around menstruation is rife in schools: girls sit in classrooms passing sanitary products to each other under desks, cringing when you can hear the paper wrapping crumpling. Most schools have some gory horror story of a girl’s period gushing out onto a grey plastic school chair. Getting a pad stuck on your back as you walk to class is the ultimate humiliation. This embarrassment prevents women from talking about their periods. As such, a huge part of many women’s lives, four days of every month, are hidden away.

The reality that periods are stigmatised is not surprising given their cultural representations, or, veritable lack of. The period’s first mainstream role came in the horror film Carrie where a teenage Sissy Spacek, confused by the blood gushing out of her, believes she’s dying. Her face becomes distorted, eyelids wrenched open, teeth bared in a ghoulish scream. It might not have been the intention, but the scene solidified periods as a cruelly awkward aspect of life.

Even now, society constantly reinforces the idea that periods are shameful. Tampon adverts rarely show blood, but rather some mysterious blue alien liquid, disassociated from the body. All we see are models with glimmering white veneers and soft blonde highlights grinning on picnic blankets or cycling with flowy white skirts. It is also difficult to forget the time Instagram removed one of Rupi Kaur’s photos of a woman curled up in bed with blood dripping out of her because it didn’t “follow [their] Community Guidelines”.

Thankfully, progress is being made towards dismantling the taboo surrounding periods. Earlier this month, MP Danielle Rowley openly announced she was on her period, aptly, in the middle of a parliament debate on period poverty. After apologising for being late, the Scottish Labour politician explained that she was currently menstruating, which had cost her £25 that week. “We know the average cost of a period in the UK over a year is £500,” Danielle explained, “many women can’t afford this. What is the minister doing to address period poverty?”

“We need to collectively shout for what we want and we need to keep shouting until we are heard”.

As well as normalising conversations about bleeding, Danielle drew attention to the economic inequalities which dictate women’s experience of periods. This is crucial, as though it is right to emphasise the need to “bust stigmas” and “open up conversations”, it is not just cultural bias that prevents change. Politicians need to work to make material differences so all women can afford to bleed safely. Otherwise, discussions of period poverty will be stuck in the same rhetorical circle of inactivity that mental health is in, with the likes of Theresa May constantly praising people for being “brave” and “speaking out” about anxiety, while sitting back as the NHS waiting list for mental health services swells to up to two years.

Women can talk as much as they want about being on their reds, Netflix can commission sassy dramas where women bleed onto white jeans, and soon there might even be slogan T-shirts which say things like “don’t touch -- I’m bleeding”. But it means nothing if respect for women’s periods isn’t reflected by the lawmakers inside of parliament.

While there are a number of activist groups looking to make sure no women has to spend the day with a sock in her underwear, there’s still a long way to go before all women have access to sanitary products. However, there is hope, only two days ago India opted to remove their 12% tax on tampons. As Amika states, “we need to collectively shout for what we want and we need to keep shouting until we are heard”.

The issue is simple: something that most women require in order to be clean should not be treated as a commodity. We should not have a tax on our bodily functions. If so, there should be a Testosterone Tax to even things out. No women should feel ashamed to go to school because of her period. There will always be blood and it’s time our society reflected that.