Bloody serious: period poverty and social stigma
Today, on World Menstruation Day, European Waves discusses a widely experienced yet hardly talked about issue: period poverty. About 1 in 10 menstruators do not have sufficient access to sanitary products. Over the last years, awareness about the problem of period poverty has slowly increased. But in order to solve the problem, we have to tackle not just the underlying economic issues, but also fight the social taboo on menstruation and periods.
In November 2020, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill that made menstrual products available for free at all public institutions like youth clubs and schools, as well as in pharmacies. The goal of the legislation was to eliminate period poverty. A survey found that about one in four respondents at school or university in Scotland struggled to access hygiene products. Period poverty exists when people cannot afford to buy the hygiene products they need, be that tampons, (reusable cloth) pads, or menstrual cups. According to the UN, it is a widely experienced problem in developing and developed countries alike. And yet, while half of the world’s population menstruates, political and social debate on the topic is only slowly gaining more momentum. Bills such as the one in Scotland are a rarity. Why are we not addressing this issue?
Period poverty in Europe – some numbers
Exactly how big is the problem of period poverty in Europe? The data is fragmented and in Europe as whole, there are no official numbers on the issue. In individual countries, estimates all fluctuate around 10%, meaning 1 in 10 menstruators experience period poverty. Take the Netherlands for instance. Until 2019, there was no official government or large-scale research data on period poverty. De Bovengronde, a feminist activist organisation, jumped into that knowledge gap together with Plan International Nederland. In their collaborative research, they confirmed a 10% period poverty rate. As a result of the research, the Dutch central liberal party (D66) addressed period poverty in parliament in November 2019. So far, however, no official legislation on making hygiene products free in public institutions has been passed. At the Dutch municipal health services (Gemeentelijke Gezondheidsdienst, or GGD), anyone can walk in for a free STD test or ask for free condoms. Evidently, this is out of a genuine concern for safeguarding reproductive health, and I would be the last to argue that STD tests or condoms should not be available for free. But it does bring forward a sharp contrast, as tampons and pads are not freely available.
In Spain, estimates are that 2 in 10 menstruators experience period poverty, although here too large-scale research and data are not available. Up until recently, hygiene products were classed as luxuries and thus taxed at the higher VAT rate of 10%. Viagra, on the other hand, is considered an essential product, taxed at 4%. The tax rate was only lowered in 2022. Although a group of activists presented a petition to the Spanish Congress in November 2021, asking to make sanitary products accessible in public buildings, nothing has happened so far on that front. On the more positive side, there is now a draft law from the Spanish Congress that gives menstruators the right to a three-day menstrual leave if they experience heavy period pains. There is a caveat though: if someone takes a day of menstrual leave, they have to make up for those hours at a different time of the month, which leaves one to wonder whether one can actually take a day off or whether this ‘catch up rule’ is just added stress. And even with the draft law, the debate continues on whether it actually helps to increase gender equality or if it does the opposite by treating menstruation as an illness.
Menstrual health management as a human rights issue
The right to clean water is widely recognized as a human right. Countless initiatives have revolved around making sure that anyone and everyone has access to safe and clean water: for example the widely endorsed citizen request Right to Water, which demands that water remain a public service good. Access to sanitary products is not recognized as such, even though legal scholars have argued that menstrual hygiene management is in fact a human rights issue. The ‘bring your own tampon’ policy has negative implications for e.g. health and sanitation, as well as gender equality, all of which are recognized as human rights. Menstruation is furthermore intrinsically linked with human dignity; when people do not have sufficient access to effective menstrual hygiene management, they cannot manage their menstruation with dignity. Period poverty impedes on that dignity. It leads to people reusing tampons or pads that are meant to be used only once, it leads to having to use socks, newspapers or toilet paper. Enter any public restroom and you find all you need to emerge hygienically out of the toilet; there is toilet paper, soap, water, some paper towels or maybe a fancy hand dryer if you are lucky. Why wouldn’t tampons or pads be part of that repertoire?
Taboo and stigma
The answer is that period poverty is sustained through the taboo and stigma surrounding menstruation. Apart from solving the poverty underlying the lack of access to hygiene products, it is necessary to address the social taboo and stigma around menstruation. A report by the United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency found that the taboo on menstruation reinforces gender-based discrimination because it perpetuates the belief that menstruating people are unclean and impure. Although research on the effects of the taboo in European countries is limited, experts argue that a lack of access to sanitary products leads to young girls missing out on school days, thereby perpetuating feelings of inequality.
And the stigma permeates everything. For the longest time, advertisements used blue liquid in their commercials to avoid any connotation to blood. Now that brands like Libresse and Always have caught up and are using red liquid in their ads, the fake blood still hardly resembles real period blood. Commercials focus on feeling fresh, dry, untainted and confident, signalling that periods are dirty, impure, and that a menstruator’s primary concern is to conceal the very fact they are menstruating. It rarely comes up in day-to-day conversations, demonstrating that menstruation is “a special topic, not one for ordinary conversation”. And if it is to be discussed at all, then exclusively in mother-daughter or women-only talks, because surely a father cannot be expected to have that conversation with his child! And when periods are being discussed, we have become experts in still covering it up. A study found that there are over 5,000 different words to describe menstruation across 10 different languages.
Printed copy of the original article “If men could menstruate” published by Gloria Steinem in October 1978.
Feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem wrote a thought-provoking essay on menstruation in 1978. In If Men Could Menstruate, she flips the script and imagines a world in which it is men who menstruate. In her alternative version, where periods are now associated with a male’s body, periods instead become positive and praiseworthy: men get the day off, there are celebrations, and people widely share their experiences about how much and how long they bleed. If men menstruated, they would own it. Although meant satirically, the essay conveys an important message: periods are considered negative and are stigmatised because they are associated with a woman’s body.
Flipping the script once more
The essay is from 1978 and Steinem’s flipped script still conforms to the male-female binary. Since then, there have been many on the barricades for not just feminism, but intersectional feminism. If we are discussing periods, period poverty, access to sanitary products in restrooms, we have to remind ourselves not to just discuss this as a women’s issue. Menstruation is not solely a women’s issue: there are transgender people, non-binary folks and men who menstruate. For example, for many men who have periods, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of bins in public toilets where they can dispose of pads or tampons. A group of students at the University of Amsterdam have started the campaign #geefbakkie (#givebin) to raise awareness about the issue and to ask the University to put bins in the male bathrooms. The male-female binary in which periods are primarily discussed serves us no good in doing away with the stigma on periods, nor does it help in the fight for equality for marginalised peoples. Organisations such as #HappyPeriod, No More Secrets and Neighborhood Feminists do an excellent job of highlighting the intersectional nature of period poverty. Considering that poverty, and therefore period poverty, is likely to affect black people and people of colour more than white people, it is essential that we go about solving period poverty with an intersectional approach. If we don’t, we might end up leaving behind those people most vulnerable to it.
Bills like the one in Scotland or Spain are a great start to solving the issue. These bills fight the affordability problem by making products available on a national scale. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, the municipality has ensured that low income families can buy hygiene products with a social benefit allowance. Such initiatives not only concretely address the issue, they also slowly change the discourse on periods. Mentioning the issue and recognizing that this is what some people experience, is a first step in normalising the taboo. It highlights that this is a conversation that we should be having. By making products available, by literally reminding people in a toilet that yes, this should be the standard repertoire of a public toilet, just like soap and water, we can move the topic away from obscurity. Talking about it and placing the very products we are talking about in clear sight, those are the first steps to normalise periods. And that is the first step to solving period poverty.
Some organisations and resources to learn more about the topic:
#HappyPeriod is a Black-led organisation that focuses on menstrual health education, advocacy, and access.
No More Secrets is a public platform for period health and wellness, focussed on education and healthcare in marginalised communities in the USA
Neighborhood Feminists is an Amsterdam-based advocacy group that came up with Menstruation Stations, where people can get sanitary products for free.
Bloody Good Period is a UK-based NGO that provides sanitary products to refugees and lobbies the UK government to make sanitary products freely available in all public institutions
If Men Could Menstruate, the essay by Gloria Steinem
Plan International did research on shame and menstruation in the Netherlands
See this page for more information on the link between human rights and menstruation.
Some academic articles that are worth a read:
The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma
Tackling Taboo Topics: A Review of the Three Ms in Working Women’s Lives
Menstrual Joy: The Construct and Its Consequences
To Bleed or Not to Bleed: Young Women’s Attitudes Toward Menstrual Suppression
Addressing Menstruation in the Workplace: The Menstrual Leave Debate
Feminine Protection: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes Towards Women
Normalising Menstruation, Empowering Girls