Ending Period Poverty By Isobel Kavanagh

In May 2021, the county of Surrey did us proud, becoming the first in the UK to launch a scheme that provides free sanitary products in public spots such as council offices, libraries, and now, in our university buildings too.

To some, this might seem like an unnecessarily generous gesture, but with the average period costing £4800 over a lifetime, you ought to think again. This figure comes from The Independent in 2021, and with the UK’s post-pandemic cost of living crisis thrown into the mix, the price has only risen. With increasing costs, the percentage of menstruators considered to be in period poverty has now risen sharply from 12% in 2022 to 21% in 2023. To put that into perspective, that’s an increase of a million people, or one in five. With higher bills, food costs and rent, the use of safe and clean practices to absorb period blood has slipped down the list of priorities, with 37% of menstruators admitting to using cotton wool or tissues, 13% socks or other clothes and 9% having to resort to newspaper. These desperate measures are said to have affected the age group of 18-24 years olds most severely.

To some, this might seem like an unnecessarily generous gesture, but with the average period costing £4800 over a lifetime, you ought to think again.

While the UK has highlighted the issues of product cost with initiatives such as Surrey’s free product scheme, reproductive justice is a manifold problem that sadly goes beyond access to tampons and pads. And it really isn’t talked about enough.

In many parts of the world, menstruators are faced with stigma and shame, restricted from understanding the biological process that causes their periods by men or cultural/religious limitations. In other places, hormonal imbalances and mental conditions associated with periods are under-researched and underfunded. Some people miss opportunities at work or school with monthly cramps that leave them bedbound and nauseous. The situation contains many layers of discrimination.

What does bind these strands of menstrual inequity together nonetheless is the impact education can have. In 2018, international non-profit The Pad Project produced an informative, empowering and Oscar-winning documentary, Period. End of Sentence. Following the women of Kathikhera, a small village outside Delhi, India, the short documentary exposes the extreme stigma surrounding periods, which as a result has left the women unequipped to care for themselves, treated as unclean, or as having an ‘illness’. In one heartbreaking moment, an older lady is asked, “What is the reason behind the bleeding?”, to which she replies, “This is something only God knows. It’s bad blood which comes out.”

What to some viewers might be a shocking way to view a period, is, in a community like this one, very normal. But the documentary and the organisation did more than capture the problem. It used its greatest power, and educated. Empowered, the women took matters into their own hands and, using a machine invented by Arunachalam Muruganantham, manufactured and sold their own pads. Even if there is still a long way to go in India and elsewhere concerning stigma, at least the community are able to care for themselves, remain hygienic and dignified in the staunching of their blood flow.

Having grown up in the circumstances I did, I have never been ashamed or embarrassed to ask a stranger for a tampon in the bathroom. I admit that before the knowledge imparted from Period. End of Sentence, I would not have considered that my experience was not the experience of others. Many, many others.

Similarly, menstruators across the globe are familiar with the cyclical mood swings and shifts in our hormones at different times in the month. But for many, these might be more extreme. 5-8% of women in the UK suffer from Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a condition that in my time trying to talk about it, many have never heard of. This lack of information and research has led to misdiagnoses of a serious degree. Often mistaken for symptoms of a personality disorder, PMDD can cause a huge number of issues both mentally and physically. Of the former, symptoms can include anxiety and depression, feeling out of control, overwhelmed, paranoid and more. Physical symptoms can include bloating, nausea and vomiting, fluid retention, and headaches. And yet… many of us have grown up believing or being told that periods are not a valid excuse to stay home from work or school. But without greater education and research, how can a sufferer of menstrual hormone imbalances demand she should have the right to stay at home?

...many of us have grown up believing or being told that periods are not a valid excuse to stay home from work or school...

It was the enormous deficit of research into mental symptoms of our periods that led me to join the cause for reproductive justice. It is, as aforementioned, just one strand to the problem. And it can seem overwhelming to get involved, as though one small voice couldn’t possibly do anything to make things better.

But as a recently appointed Advocacy Ambassador for The Pad Project, I can vouch for the fact that one small voice, when combined with over a hundred others like me from countries all over the world, can start to make its mark. Discussing ideas and amplifying change with women from Canada to Uganda, I have learned about menstrual experiences that differ to my own, and yet somehow, resonate entirely.

If you would like to join the cause of menstrual equity, it starts with education. Get involved with the Pad Project, here.

Watch Period. End of Sentence (2018) on YouTube, here.

To learn more about where to get free period products on campus, look here.