Sunday, 10 February 2019

Periods are still bloody hard

Metro ran a comment piece on its website about period poverty and the role the government can play in helping end this monthly nightmare, particularly for disadvantaged teenage girls.  It was written by the founders of the excellent Red Box Project, a UK-wide scheme to provide sanitary products in schools. Inevitably, when the story was posted to the newspaper's Facebook page, plenty of people felt the need to say there is no such thing as period poverty, largely because you can buy pads and tampons for a quid at Poundland and every young person has a mobile phone - the usual asinine responses to a complex issue...  

Tragically, one of the commentators on the newspaper's Facebook page said she had to use toilet paper as sanitary protection when she was growing up and therefore couldn't see why poor teenagers today couldn't do the same thing. Race-to-the-bottom comments like this are frustratingly common, where people boast of their suffering and see no reason to prevent others from suffering, even if such suffering could easily cause infection and even if there are solutions to prevent the suffering from continuing.

It is indeed true that sanitary products are available for £1 at Poundland but there are households where every pound spent has to be carefully considered. If there is an alternative to sanitary protection, such as loo paper filched from schools or public toilets or even socks, a poor family may forego buying £1 boxes of pads and tampons for the girls and women and spend that pound on food instead. If you are donating to your local food bank, please consider adding pads or tampons to the pile of tinned food and pot noodles.

And if you have the awful misfortune to be menstruating and homeless, your options for a hygienic and comfortable period are even more limited.

It is not an issue that many people like to discuss but if the hideous realities of periods for the poor are not confronted, girls and women will continue to suffer here in the UK and other developed countries, just as surely as they suffer in cultures where menstruation is seen as unclean and periods mean monthly banishment and disenfranchisement of girls and women as they miss out on educational and employment opportunities. 

Plan UK introduced the period emoji (see at the top of this page) to encourage more open discussion about menstruation - obviously an emoji won't solve everything but it's a start. The mere fact that plenty of ignorant people responded to the simple drop of blood with revulsion illustrated why it's needed in the first place.

Every discussion about period poverty inevitably results in someone, usually well-meaning but privileged, demanding we all use moon-cups. The moon-cup is a great idea - it is an eco-friendly, reusable means of dealing with periods. However, it is still out of reach for many people with a starting price of £21.99. And it needs to be used in hygienic conditions - this is not always possible for poor people and it can be especially impractical for the homeless. We are not yet at a place where girls and women are frequently seen rinsing out their moon-cups in public bathrooms and school toilets - and there are plenty of grotesque public and school conveniences out there where it is not hygienic to rinse a moon-cup properly. And some girls and women just don't like them or have trouble using them - this is not a character defect, it's just the way it is.

Likewise, reusable fabric sanitary pads are a great, eco-friendly idea but they are not practical for anyone who struggles to access good laundry facilities.

So we need to talk about solutions to ensure everyone has a hygienic and comfortable period. After all, periods are the one biological fact of life that affects every girl and woman. We won't all experience pregnancy or childbirth or miscarriage or endometriosis or gynaecological cancer but menstruation cannot be avoided if you have ovaries and a uterus. 

Menstruation is the one biological event that has an impact on our lives across the entire time we are fertile. It comes with emotional challenges and joys as well as physical challenges.

The first period can be a time of excitement for those who can't wait to grow up, it can be terrifying or confusing for those who experience menarche at an early age, it can be a relief when it finally happens to a late bloomer or it can be seen as an inconvenience, something that needs to be dealt with, its impact on everyday life minimised. Indeed, it was only last month that mass outrage erupted when the UK Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare of the Royal Collage of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists released guidelines stating that there is no need to have the pretend period you get when you take the sugar pills in your contraceptive pill packet. Cue masses of furious women thinking about the money they have spent on sanitary protection over the years, the holidays ruined, the sexual encounters messed up, the time lost from work or school with cramps, the excuses they had to make for not going swimming and so on, all of which could have been avoided if myths about needing to take the sugar pills hadn't been peddled by everyone from their mothers to their doctors.

As we get older, our periods continue to govern our lives - there is the relief when a period arrives after an unwanted pregnancy scare, the sadness of a period arriving when one is hoping to be pregnant, the realisation when a period arrives in March that one will probably not have a baby that year, the sheer joy when a period doesn't come and a pregnancy, either planned or a happy surprise, is happening, and the relief or sadness when one is perimenopausal and the period years are coming to an end. 

Periods are a big deal and it can be hard to explain this to anyone who has never had a period. Menstruation is something that simultaneously demands that those experiencing it can have privacy and good sanitation - and that those experiencing it can talk about it without being howled down, accused of being hysterical (a word which has its origins in our wombs being the source of ungovernable emotions), or told to simply toughen up because we are no longer in the Tudor era of rags and the belief that periods were a punishment from God because of Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden is no longer widely held in the UK.   

In 2016, 19-year-old Ryan Williams, a self-proclaimed "meninist", embarrassed himself by posting on social media that tampons were a luxury, that taxes on sanitary products should not be abolished and that "if you can't control your bladder then that's not the taxpayers' problem" - when people aren't even aware that period blood and urine orginate from different places and out of different orifices, we really do need to talk. It's not just men who need educating either. I remember telling a female friend at university - we were both 20 at the time - that you don't need to remove a tampon in order to do a wee and this was a revelation for her.  

So, instead of being revulsed by a period emoji or rushing to be the first to say that period poverty is not real, how about being constructive instead? How about we discuss ideas to ensure that hygienic, comfortable periods are a right, not a privilege? How about we make sure it is widely known that skipping periods while on the pill is not harmful? How about every pupil who receives sex education at school knows how periods work so we don't have another generation of people thinking we simply piss out our periods at will? How about we don't rest until this basic dignity and comfort is afforded to every girl and woman on the planet? 

If we fail to do this, we really are no better than those who punish menstruation through banishment. Hiding menstruation away is misogyny. 


  1. We had a pre Christmas campaign called Share the Dignity in Australia whereby you could donate sanitary products or fill a handbag of
    personal health products for homeless women and drop off at many local spots. An ongoing charity and a great idea. Most pharmacies have a collection box to drop off sanitary products. But one and donate one. 👍

  2. Personally, I don't understand how condoms are free at clinics but sanitary protection is seen as a luxury product. You can choose to have sex, but periods are pretty compulsory for young women!