Menstruation has burdened the lives of half the world’s population since the dawn of humans, and despite thousands of years of civilisation, society is still trying to work out how to cope. Your time of the month doesn’t ask for permission to show up, let alone check your bank account to see whether you have access to a hygienic way to deal with it. It’s an unstoppable force of nature. That’s why sanitary products are a necessity, not a luxury – women have no choice for four to seven days every month but to use tampons and sanitary products, simply to live a normal, comfortable life. And unfortunately, not all women around the world can afford to, as sanitary products are still widely classified as a ‘luxury’, rather than a hygenic basic requirement. Globally, over 1.2 billion women lack access to sanitary products.
Period poverty is a phenomenon which exists all over the world, and besides affecting a woman’s health, it also negatively impacts her education, self-esteem and psychological well-being. UNESCO has reported that 1 in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss 20% of the school year because of not having enough money to deal with their periods. Similarly, half of the school-age girls in Kenya have no access to sanitary towels or tampons.
And it affects us right here at home, too. Almost 50% of girls in Scotland have had to opt for alternatives like toilet paper, socks or newspaper during their periods. One study found that women will spend £5000 in their lifetime on sanitary products alone - that equates to around £10 per period. Sounds like a lot when you consider that a box of tampons is typically only a few pounds, but as Twitter user summer j points out, ‘not everyone has access to a cheap shop, painkillers cost money, emergency menstrual products (i.e. from a bog) cost more, new underwear when you bleed through costs money’.
An Australian woman told me about her struggle to calculate her budget in order to have enough money after buying sanitary products: ‘I’ve worn sanitary items beyond the recommended time when running low so that I can avoid buying new products until I have space in my budget’.
Ashleigh from Northern Ireland has been living in Scotland for three years and believes that there should be more education in schools about other options, like menstrual cups, though this money-saving option isn’t viable for everybody. 'I have student friends who have used tampons and pads way longer than they should because they can’t afford to purchase products in bulk – one girl I know got toxic shock syndrome. It’s a big problem for the large community of homeless women, too, as donated sanitary products are often not sanitary’, says Ashleigh.
A study conducted by Always #EndPeriodPoverty revealed that women who deal with this problem are more prone to anxiety and depression. Over half of women who have experienced period poverty believe it has had a direct effect on their success, confidence and happiness as an adult.
But thankfully, improvements are starting to be made. Scotland has taken a huge step forward by becoming the first country to offer free sanitary products to students in order to ensure that girls don’t have to experience their period as such an obstacle. The Scottish government has recently allocated £5.2 million to provide free tampons to school, colleges and universities. This measure has been welcomed with great enthusiasm from women all over the world who believe that more countries should adopt Scotland’s model.
Chouaib from Tunisia says that he’s seen women in his country have to skip school, and sometimes even repeat the whole academic year, just because they aren’t able to afford sanitary pads: ‘As well as having the discomfort of having to use barely-absorbent tissues instead of pads, many girls become victims of public shaming – other students laugh at them or tease them because they see them walking differently’. He believes sanitary products should be covered by taxes and included in the health care system.
South African Mishka mentions that the majority of South Africans live below the poverty line and women who menstruate are left to fend for themselves: ‘Some girls starve themselves or use drugs to prevent getting their periods. There’s a large stigma against menstruation in South Africa so people don’t talk about it, especially not around men.’
She adds that Scotland should be acclaimed for providing sanitary products for free, but that ‘it’s unfortunate that awareness around period poverty is only just being raised, despite this being a global issue for as long as I can remember ’.
Besides Scotland’s progress, there are more and more initiatives and groups who aim to make sanitary products free for all. The Red Box Project in the UK, the official partner for the Always #EndPeriodPoverty campaign, is a movement where women around Britain set up Red Boxes of tampons and towels in local schools and donate them to the girls in need.
Anna Miles, co-founder of the Red Box Project, came up with an idea to ensure no girl ever misses school due to the lack of sanitary protection: ‘The Always #EndPeriodPoverty campaign worked with some truly brilliant poets who wrote eloquently about their experiences of having their periods, and looks to tackle some of the shame associated with period poverty. For every like of the poems, Always donates a pad to The Red Box Project, so we can distribute them to the UK school girls who need them most’, says Anna.
She explains the real struggle of not being able to afford tampons and how this issues affects women’s physical and emotional well-being: ‘Many young women don’t have the peace of mind and security of having someone to turn to for these products, so feelings of isolation, lack of confidence and being reduced to improvise with socks, newspaper and/or toilet roll are stories we hear of all too often. For anyone putting themselves in that situation it’s impossible not to see how that can affect a young person's sense of self worth and belonging’.
Sanitary products are mandatory to a woman’s health, and should not be treated like a necessary expense, especially since more and more women get their periods way before their teenage years. Young women don’t decide when they have their periods, nor their financial situations which determine whether they can afford to spend money on sanitary products. The reform implied by the Scottish government should only be the beginning, with countries around the world following it as a model. Having a period is tough enough as it is, and governments should do what they can to ensure that a girl’s ability to afford sanitary products doesn’t affect her with any additional stress.