The de-stigmatisation of women’s bodies in 2021: are we there yet?
26th April 2021
This two-part article series will highlight the strides that have been made and the strides still to be made for all women to feel comfortable, respected and valued in their bodies. This first piece will tackle period poverty, shame and education gaps concerning menstruation.
The fight to de-stigmatise women’s bodies is enduring and it is imperative that we make meaningful progress in 2021. One key area is the stigma attached to women’s physical and sexual health. Plan International is an organisation which has done much to highlight the core issues related to period poverty in Ireland and abroad. Plan’s Youth Advisory Panel (YAP) has termed three core issues: education, stigmatisation and access, as the ‘Toxic Trio’ of period poverty. Plan International’s ‘We Need To Talk. Period.’ campaign, investigates issues most prevalent in Ireland and the developing countries in which they work to destigmatise periods and lobby for practical change. According to senator Lorraine Cliddord-Lee in her recent address to the Seanad:“Period poverty refers to an inadequate access to period products, washing, waste management facilities and education.”
“When highlighting the importance of the conversation around menstruation, it is vital that we include trans men and non-binary people. For too long their voices, concerns and ideas of menstruation have gone unheard, to their detriment.”
A Vogue piece from June 2020 titled, ‘We must include trans men and non-binary people when we talk about periods—here’s why’ highlights the issues for masculine presenting and non-binary people, especially in terms of language and accessibility around menstruation being exclusively feminine. Period products sold and advertised as ‘feminine hygiene products’ often make for an uncomfortable experience for those masculine-presenting people to access period products. The issue of public accessibility is also deeply problematic. Kai Wes, a masculine non-binary activist gave the example of public male bathrooms where period products are generally not available and there may only be one or no private cubicles. Wes said in Vogue “I’ve definitely kept a tampon in way too long and risked toxic shock, people die from that.”
It is crucial that all genders have an early understanding of menstruation, and this is one element of Plan’s strategy to combat the ‘Toxic Trio’. Plan has lobbied for the early menstrual education of both girls and boys, not only the physical but also the “emotional, social and practical aspects of periods.” Plan Ireland carried out a survey with 1100 girls aged 12 to 19+, and found that “43% of girls felt they didn’t know what to do when their period started.” Plan Ireland and Homeless Period Ireland are lobbying for more all-encompassing education. It is important to educate young people that there are products other than tampons and pads which may suit their individual needs better, for example, menstrual cups. Period education should also encompass awareness of period absence, and teach that there are conditions related to menstruation, including endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. These are conditions that are common in women and are much easier to live with when those affected have an early understanding of them.
“The education of young boys undoubtedly helps the de-stigmatisation of periods. Boys are far more likely to be a source of support for those who are menstruating when they fully understand the concept.”
Stigma and shame around menstruation is another element of the ‘Toxic Trio’. Menstruation should not be treated as a taboo subject. Genders should not be segregated during sex education classes and menstruation certainly should not be censored or omitted from boys’ education. The cause of so much shame is the mystery and misunderstanding of periods, leading to taunting and disgust of female anatomy. Many girls have missed days of school, stopped playing sports or missed practises due to the stigma and lack of access to period products. In Senator O’Loughlin’s address to the Seanad, she stated that “61% of Irish girls have missed school because of their period.”
The other component the ‘Toxic Trio’ is the cost and access to clean safe period products. Plan International is one NGO lobbying the government for a range of period products to be available in public settings. Period poverty is an ongoing problem in Ireland, with Plan Ireland’s survey showing that “50% of girls experienced issues around affordability of sanitary products.”
Over the course of the last two years, Ireland has been in the midst of legislative change to create awareness of this stigma and to make a range of safe period products accessible to all who require them. In 2019 the National Strategy for Women and Girls established a sub committee on period poverty which made a number of recommendations, including that all governmentally funded educational facilities including primary, secondary, and third level have free accessible period products. Just last week Lidl launched their free period product initiative in partnership with Homeless Period Ireland and The Simon Communtities of Ireland. Lidl is set to become the first major retailer in the world to offer free period products in stores nationwide to women and girls aftected my period poverty.
Two bills providing for greater accessibility to period products are currently under scrutiny in the Seanad, a narrower bill introduced by Fianna Fáil and a broader bill introduced by Senator Rebecca Moynihan from the Labour. These new bills recognise that some of the most marginalised and at-risk groups from period poverty need to be financially supported for their health and well-being especially during the ongoing pandemic. These groups include the homeless population, those in domestic abuse situations, one parent families and those in Traveller and Roma communities. In a piece in The Irish Independent, Claire Hunt of Homeless Period Ireland implores “No person (…) should have to choose between buying food or period products…women should not have to resort to using cut-up fabric or toilet tissue. Period products should be as freely available as toilet paper.”
“This issue of financing is by no means an Irish issue exclusively. In parts of the world, including certain US States, period products are still taxed as luxury, non-essential items.”
It was not so long ago, in 2018 that the EU made the progressive move to abolish the 5% tax rate that had previously been on sanitary products. This was received with alacrity by activists in Europe. This was a big step in creating society-wide awareness of the essential nature of period products, particularly to those who do not menstruate. There are many strides to be made in alliviating the burdens and obstacles experienced by those who menstruate. Legislation needs to be expedited. Some period products other than tampons and pads are still taxed at a higher tax rate, including menstrual cups currently taxed at 13.5 % VAT. There is so much shame and stigma around periods that detrimentally affect the lives of those who menstruate. According to Plan research “61% of girls are too embarrassed to talk about their period”.
There is both a societal and governmental responsibility to change attitudes and end stigma surrounding menstruation. Both need to recognise the essential nature of education and accessibility around periods and period products. Crucially, governments must prioritise hygiene, health and dignity by unburdening those who are struggling with the realities of menstruating.
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