If you visited the women’s centre where I work you would notice that our bathroom is always stacked with supplies of tampons, pads and panty liners in different shapes and sizes.
Many of our service users face in fact situations of economic uncertainty as a result of violence, so it is important to us that their basic needs are met when they are on site. Creating a welcoming environment for the women and girls who access our services goes a long way to make them feel supported: sometimes it can be as simple as providing free tampons.
Access to sanitary products is an important issue for disadvantaged women and girls worldwide, although a common misconception would have it that this is the case only for developing countries. Reports of schoolgirls in the global South using cloths, leaves and rugs (link) in place of sanitary tampons or pads abound in Western news outlets, but for marginalised women in Europe and the United States period-reality is not all that different .
For instance, in American prisons female inmates are often provided with a very limited supply of sanitary towels, whilst other facilities leave prisoners to supply these for themselves (buying them with whatever money they own or using makeshift pads if they have none) (link). Detention centres for refugees in Australia have also been accused of rationing sanitary pads in a way that feels humiliating for the detainees (link). In the UK, where female sanitary products are subject to a 5% “luxury” tax, a petition (link) asking the government to subsidise pads and tampons for homeless shelters – as is already the case with condoms – has reached 38.700 signatures (link).
The by now infamous “tampon tax” has become a matter of national debate in the United Kingdom, so much so that the political party UKIP (link) is endorsing the cause in order to advance its anti-European stance (EU regulations in fact do not currently allow sanitary products not to be taxed).
As British MPs consider taking the issue to Brussels (link), more and more human rights organisations are coming forwards asking for menstruations – and adequate access to sanitation – to be treated in all respects as a matter of human rights (link).
The lack of access to adequate facilities, such as clean bathrooms and affordable sanitary products has in fact important consequences on all aspects of women’s lives: it affects their health, access to education and job opportunities and undermines their right to live with dignity (link). In Uganda young girls have been found to lose up to 11% of their school days as a result of poorly cleaned bathrooms, lack of affordable sanitary products and stigma surrounding menstruations (link). The lack of suitable sanitary facilities has also been linked to higher rates of school abandonment among girls, leading to reduced employment opportunities and lower wages for women.
Young girls in impoverished areas of Kenya have reported having sex with older men in order to be able to acquire sanitary products (link), raising concerns around the impact that lack of affordable sanitation has on young women’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation.
But the most striking case of period inequality nowadays is perhaps that currently faced by female refugees, with sanitary products being rare and expensive and camps often lacking separate facilities such as female-only toilets or sleeping areas (link).
Refugee women have reported to Amnesty International feeling unsafe when using mixed facilities and avoiding eating and drinking in order to minimise the need to utilize them. Lack of privacy and cleanliness is also mentioned as reason for steering clear of unisex toilets, with many women preferring to carry out sanitary care in the fields.
A number of other examples can be made to sustain the case for necessity of improvement in sanitary provisions for women worldwide: for example, women from disadvantaged backgrounds in the United States find themselves unable to use food vouchers to purchase tampons (link), whilst calls for free distribution of sanitary products are met at best with indifference and at worst with conservative backlash.
Homeless women in the UK often find themselves forced to use whatever will do the job in place of sanitary towels and in some cases resorting to shop-lifting in order to obtain these. When these are provided in homeless shelters, women sometimes do not know or are ashamed to ask (link).
Stigma surrounding menstruations is still strong in the Western world and the persistence of policies that penalise women for having periods – such as unfair taxation – is of no help in dismantling it. Thanks to the efforts of a number of women’s charities, slow changes are now on the way to tackle the lack of affordable menstrual care worldwide.
Lunapads (link) is one of the organisations providing women in developing nations with reusable cloth pads and underwear, whilst the business Sheva (link), started in 2012, provides a monthly supply of sanitary products to girls in developing countries for every online purchase.
In collaboration with the charity CRISIS, Femmecup (link) applies the buy-one-give-one principle to provide sanitary products to homeless and refugee women and many more organisations are working to empower women and girls gain access to sustainable and adequate menstrual care.
As valuable as these efforts are, the solution to the problem cannot however be shifted to charities and businesses alone: as Jessica Valenti has written for The Guardian (link), it is time that menstruations be finally recognised as a healthcare issue and treated as such. Most women – which means nearly half of the world’s population – regularly experience periods and the practical needs related to it.
Arguably, periods are not only a woman’s matter: linked as they are to issues of health, reproduction, education and employability, they should be regarded as a concern for society at large. The achievement of women’s equal participation to society and politics depends upon the creation of facilities that meet their specific needs: sometimes it may be as simple as providing affordable menstrual care.
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