Menstruating. Periods. That time of the month. The Curse. Your Aunty Flow. Having the painter and decorator in. The Blob. On the rag. Shark week. And my personal favourite; Old Testament rivers of blood ruining everyones lives and spreading fear and devastation throughout the land which is my body…OK, I made that last one up but whatever you call it I’ve yet to meet one person who absolutely loves bleeding from their vagina each month.
My periods have always sucked big time. I get exhaustion, bloating, spotty teenage skin and headaches about 3 days before my period actually arrives and then when it hits, it hits hard! It’s so heavy that I use approximately one packet of sanitary towels a day for four days otherwise I leak out onto my underwear, trousers and whatever I’m sitting on… It’s carnage! It’s always been like this for me. I grew up in a house with my mum, dad and two sisters so there was a lot of menstruating happening. Although I don’t come from an affluent background, in fact the area I went to school in was affected greatly by poverty, I was lucky enough that we could afford whatever sanitary products my sisters and I needed.
It had never occurred to me that the arrival of my period and my sisters periods meant that my parents had to factor these monthly events into their budget. That as each one of us reached puberty there was less money to live off of each month. Money was always tight in our house when I was growing up and there were many teenage tantrums over the lack of money (one which led to me getting my first job at 14 years old) but each month my monster heavy periods were taken care of, I never missed school, my life didn't stop. It never occurred to me that there were girls sitting right next to me in class who had just one sanitary product to last them the whole day. Or even worse, there were girls off sick from school because they couldn't afford any sanitary products or even pain killers to help with their cramps.
There is a wide held belief that boys and girls in this country are born with the exact same opportunities as each other. That throughout their childhood and adolescents they have the same access to education, their experiences are equal and that inequalities begin for girls much later in life. This common, out of touch with whats happening in the real world view is predominately held by white, affluent men and women.
In reality Scottish Government statistics show that boys and girls have identical attendance records until they reach second year in high school, which is the age that the majority of girls get their first period. From this point on girls attendance rates drop below their male counterparts and this continues until they leave school. These statistics are troubling when you pair them with the YouGov research that found 3.5 million girls and women in the UK missed school or work because of their period. This view that boys and girls have the exact same opportunities as each other from birth may be true of upper middle class families but this is absolutely not the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of girls and women across the country. Period poverty is one of the most noticeable ways that the gender chasm begins and widens.
Teachers up and down the country have been voicing their concerns over period poverty for years, but as poverty as a whole has risen and the need for food banks has risen so has the need for sanitary products. There have been several newspaper articles recently that reported in some school districts teachers have been buying sanitary products out of their own pockets for students who have been forced to come to school with only one saturated sanitary towel to last them the whole day. Some children can’t even afford one sanitary product a day and are forced to stuff their underwear full of toilet paper in the hopes it will stem the flow for long enough until they can make it home. Charities including Freedom4Girls and Flow Aid have been contact by teachers and the school children themselves in desperation to ask for help in providing sanitary products. There are teachers reporting that these girls are bullied by their peers for ‘smelling bad’ which can lead to isolation. This inevitably has a knock on effect to their physical and mental wellbeing all the while the boys are progressing, pushing forward unhindered by their biology.
There are even girls missing class completely, losing out on large chunks of their education because they are unable to come to school bleeding but that’s not the only thing they miss out on. They also miss out on sports, drama, art, music, socialising, fresh air, everything that they would normally do. They drop out of their lives for a week each month. And it’s not just the girls that are missing out, it’s women too. They are missing their work, using up their sick days (if they are lucky enough to have sick days - those on zero hours contracts just don't get paid). They are falling behind at work, falling behind their male counter parts, the productivity drops, everyone suffers.
There are some people reading this who will think “Yeah, sure I hear what you're saying but lots of girls and women and trans people who menstruate can afford sanitary products and they can afford painkillers so how big really is this problem?” Well this problem is huge. There is 1.05 million people living in poverty in Scotland, this means one in four children live in poverty. Food bank use in Scotland increased by nine percent last year making it a record high. To quote Nigel Webster the project manager of the Bestwood and Bulwell food bank in Nottingham “If you’ve got no money to feed yourself then you’ve got no money to wipe your backside either”.
However being unable to afford sanitary products is only one aspect of menstruation that needs radically changed. There is another aspect of menstruation equally detrimental to the health and wellbeing of menstruating people. Period Shame. Of the 3.5 million girls and women who missed work and school in the UK due to menstruation only 27% were honest about why they were absent, choosing to lie or withhold the truth that the reason they were absent was due to their period. In 2016 a survey carried out by Action Aid found that a third of all women in the UK are embarrassed by their period. A THIRD!
Why? Why have we allowed this perfectly normal, monthly occurrence to bring shame and embarrassment? Why are we allowing our daughters, friends, sisters, fellow menstruators to be embarrassed by something that is completely natural? Why do we leave them soaked in their own menstrual blood in unsafe, unhygienic circumstances? Why do we allow this to happen to them? I declare 2017 to be the year of Period Positivity! We need to talk about it, embrace it and we need to stop hiding it! We need to show the next generation that if you're going to learn to love your self, your body, your lumps and bumps then you're going to have to learn to love your period too. OK, OK you're never going to love having it, but we must refuse to be ashamed of it. Taking a personal day because your period is giving you hell? Great, tell your boss! Instagraming about that cold you’re just getting over? Cool, I’ll be instagraming how my first period feels after getting the coil fitted last week! (but that’s a blog post for another time.)
Putting an end to period shame means giving girls, women and trans people who menstruate dignity. Dignity in menstruating through cleanliness, comfort, pain relief and support. How can we empower each other, feel positive about our bodies and unashamed of our perfectly natural cyclical bodily function if our ability to participate fully in our lives is left up to whether or not we or our parents can afford sanitary products for us?
How can men and women ever be truly equal when women will always have the burden of the expense of sanitary products. In a country where babies are given free vitamins from brith and couples can access free condoms as often as they want for pleasure, why are women still paying for an absolutely essential, most basic of needs?
Now, I know you should never read the comment section on online articles but there is an argument often made by men every time a women writes about period poverty or suggests gender bias in having to pay for essential sanitary products. If you are familiar with the comments section on these articles you’ll be very familiar with the predominantly male counter argument. It goes a little something like this:
So let me put this to bed once and for all, and I’ll use pictures because some people are visual learners…
Men who are successful and don’t need razors:
Woman who are successful and menstruate and don’t need sanitary products:
Another redundant argument is that we already got the luxury tax scrapped, isn't that enough?? Not quite. Due to the tireless efforts of feminist activist Laura Coryton the VAT or Luxury Tax was dropped in March 2016. All good right? Wrong. The removal of the 5% tax won’t actually come into effect until April 2018 (maybe) and in the meantime the tax money earned is being donated to ‘women’s charities’ which include an anti-abortion organisation. Not so great. And while Tesco and Waitrose should be applauded for absorbing the 5% tax and selling their sanitary products at a reduced cost to their consumer, it’s just not enough. It’s not equality.
So what can we do? Well firstly you can make an immediate impact by donating sanitary products to your local food bank. You can find out where your nearest food bank is by entering your postcode here:
When people donate to food banks sanitary products are often in limited supply, so donate, donate, donate. Every sanitary product you give makes a difference but this isn't a long term solution. This is putting a wonder woman plaster on a nicked artery, it’s short term but it won’t stop the bleeding or the menstruation for that matter.
It’s not all bad though. People are campaigning, protesting and pushing through new legislation on free sanitary products access. Scotland is on its way to becoming the first country in the world to give out free sanitary products to girls and women living in poverty. The trial which is being rolled out in Aberdeen is expected to help an estimated 1000 girls and women who would struggle to afford sanitary products normally. This is absolutely a step in the right direction but it's still not enough.
MSP Monica Lennon has a better idea. The long term solution that she is working tirelessly on is in her proposed Members Bill to the Scottish Parliament. Her Bill will end period poverty for good. It will make it easy for all girls, women and trans people who menstruate to access free sanitary products and equally as important it will apply a statutory duty on schools, colleges and universities to provide free and accessible sanitary products on all campuses ensuring true gender equality and a fairer society.
Here is the aim of Monica’s proposed bill in her own words:
Along with free and accessible sanitary products, the Bill aims to reduce the stigma around periods and menstruating. Ending the shame girls, women and trans people who menstruate feel will lead to their empowerment and I can’t think of anything more important than that.
Can you imagine a world where we could access free sanitary products in schools, at the library, university, the doctors, supermarket toilets, the cinema, shopping centres, gyms, restaurants, church, clubs, any and every space menstruating people inhabit. Free and instant sanitary care will ensure that we never need to make the choice between spending what money we have on sanitary products or leaving wherever we are for fear we’ll leak, or smell or ruin whatever we happen to be sitting on at the time?
As long as there are girls suffering from infection and toxic shock syndrome because they have one tampon to last them a whole day, as long as there are fourteen year old girls forced to sellotape their socks to their underwear in order to attend school, as long as there are girls stapling wades of toilet roll to their pants because they “don't want to get shouted at”, as long as there are women missing work, losing money, families struggling with their budgeting because mothers and daughters are menstruating there will never be equality.