‘Period justice is gender justice’: DCU’s Ross Boyd on period poverty
12th of December 2021
Across the world, 800 million people menstruate daily, but the topic still remains generally undiscussed. The lack of conversation around the issue feeds into a cycle of stigma and silence, which serves to create a sense of shame for people who menstruate, an important bodily function which is completely natural and experienced by about half the global population. Difficulty in raising awareness about the issue allows these these challenges to go unnoticed and unchecked which perpetuates a cycle of stigma and the proliferation of harmful myths. These social stigmas, when coupled with other financial and cultural barriers, mean that the fight for global menstrual justice requires an intersectional approach.
A new campaign from STAND and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), #FreeTheFlow, aims to break this cycle of stigma and inaccessibility. Partnering with a number of activists and experts, the campaign explains the barriers to menstrual justice and explores the ways we can break them down. According to Aishah Akorede, founder of Recrowned Ireland: “#FreetheFlow means breaking the cycle of stigma attached to menstruation, which is the first step towards addressing the problem of menstrual poverty…you cannot solve something that you cannot speak about.” With panel discussions and workshops, the campaign hopes to encourage both those who menstruate, and those who don’t, to take action to tackle menstrual inequality together. Students can sign the #FreeTheFlow pledge to receive an action pack filled with ideas about how to support the fight for menstrual equity on university campuses and around the world.
#FreetheFlow means breaking the cycle of stigma attached to menstruation, which is the first step towards addressing the problem of menstrual poverty…you cannot solve something that you cannot speak about.
There are several different angles through which menstrual inequity can be tackled; social, cultural, economic, environmental. In terms of social and cultural change, dispelling myths around the world that menstruation is ‘unclean’ or ‘unhygienic’ is key. For example, myths around cleanliness prevent young girls on their period from entering the classroom, robbing them of vital education. In terms of economics, tackling period poverty is a huge aspect of menstrual justice. In Ireland, the average annual costs of period products per person who menstruates is estimated to be €96.72, rising to €121 per year when pain relief is taken into account. National data suggested that approximately 53,000 to 85,000 women and girls in Ireland may be at risk of period poverty; while globally, 12.8% of people with periods struggle to access the resources they need to manage their periods.
One aspect of menstrual justice which is often overlooked is the issue of sustainability. Period products generate huge amounts of plastic waste, with the average person who menstruates throwing away 200kg of menstrual products in their lifetime. These barriers to access add to social stigmas around menstruation, stigma which then leads to misinformation, myths and mistreatment and prevents people from accessing basic human rights. This then feeds back into a lack of action into tackling these original barriers to access, and the cycle of shame and disempowerment continues.
Period products generate huge amounts of plastic waste, with the average person who menstruates throwing away 200kg of menstrual products in their lifetime.
STAND spoke to Ross Boyd, Vice-President of DCU Students Union and member of #FreeTheFlow partner PLAN International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel, about how tackling period stigma will benefit everyone, not just people who menstruate.
As part of PLAN International Ireland, a charity with a strong focus on gender equality, Ross’ eyes were opened to the realities of gender inequality both in Ireland and in the Global South. “You think you know a lot when you go into a space like that,” Ross said, “but then you realise you actually don’t know anything.” For Ross, once he had been exposed to many gender inequality issues which he had previously been unaware of, the next step was “very much about listening,” and then taking that information on board to inform your allyship. Ross, like many men, was nervous at first about entering into the conversations around gender issues such as period justice, but says that what changed for him was “realising that men are just as important to gender equality than women and other marginalised genders are.”
One major aspect of breaking the stigma around menstruation involves welcoming those who don’t menstruate into the conversation as a way of normalising and removing shame from the process. “The best way to combat that stigma is to have conversations that make it more normalised,” says Ross, “but not making jokes like ‘oh they’re just on their period’, because those kinds of things just dismiss the issue.” According to research done by PLAN International Ireland, around 50% of secondary school girls feel shame around their periods, exacerbated by a culture of silence and taboo around the topic. For Ross, especially as someone involved in a leadership position in a university, “removing the stigma is the first thing, but then also removing those financial barriers.”
“…men are just as important to gender equality than women and other marginalised genders are”
Another issue which is important to deal with in terms of increasing accessibility and reducing stigma is to adjust the language used when speaking about menstruation and menstrual inequity. For Ross, this is often just as simple as remembering that “it’s not just women and girls involved in this issue, but all people who menstruate.” But this is also impossible to separate from other barriers, such as economic ones. Having period products discreetly available in all public spaces allows those who menstruate but don’t identify as women to access period products which stigma or other social barriers might prevent them from accessing otherwise. In DCU, when the campaign for free period products on campus was launched it was important to the team for the products to be free and available, “in all bathrooms, in gender neutral bathrooms as well, so people don’t need to experience the stigma associated with entering a women’s bathroom.” In DCU they also provided a postal service of period products in order to provide people with even more privacy.
In the end, period inequity, like all other forms of inequity, will not only be solved by those who directly experience it. It requires everyone to lift their voice into the conversation to break the stigma and increase accessibility. The DCU free period products initiative garnered such a massive demand that they had to scale back. “It really just showed how many people really did need it,” says Ross, highlighting how the lack of conversation around the topic can shelter people from the realities of how widespread it is. When a topic is not talked about, it is easy to turn a blind eye or to distance yourself from the problem. But Ross implores those who think they have no place in the menstruation justice movement to reconsider; “Your friends or people you know definitely face these issues – either from financial barriers, stigma, or mental health barriers – whether they disclose this to you or not.” While menstruation inequality is just one aspect of gender inequality, it is one that is often overlooked. Ross summed up the importance of this campaign; “period justice is gender justice.”
Learn more about the campaign and take the pledge to #FreetheFlow by visiting 1000students.ie