Period Poverty is an Unknown Consequence of Coronavirus Shutdowns
27th July 2020
I get my period. People get their periods. Half of the world’s people will get a period at some time in their life. Yet, period poverty exists and is exacerbated by Covid-19. The virus has revealed the cracks in our system. One of these cracks is the lack of support and supplies for people who have periods.
‘Period poverty’ describes the inability to afford sanitary products. It can also relate to the lack of understanding and education surrounding periods. The term ‘toxic trio’ helped me to understand period poverty better. This is the trio of elements which create and exacerbate period poverty. Firstly, there is a lack of education about periods. Secondly, there is the cost of sanitary products. Thirdly, there is a taboo and stigma surrounding menstruation.
A lack of education about periods persists. Generally, the institutions which provide information on periods are educational institutions such as schools and health care services. With schools closed due to Covid-19 in many countries and health care services only dealing with critical cases, the flow of information provided to people who have periods has been disrupted. One might assume that this problem is resolved by the wealth of information available online. But I can tell you as someone from rural Ireland that internet access is a privilege and not one which everyone has. Internet access is estimated to be 53.6% worldwide by the end of 2019. Although this seems like an encouraging figure, there is a significant gender gap in internet access. In fact, the global internet gender gap is 17%. Women, girls and marginalized groups are much less likely to have access to the internet. This directly affects people’s ability to educate themselves about menstruation at a time when access to traditional education resources are out of reach.
This lack of education feeds into myths about links between menstruation and Covid-19. For instance, in Tanzania, rumours spread that menstruation is a symptom of Covid-19 and that people menstruating are more likely to transmit the disease. These rumours are without any scientific basis and feed into the stigmatization of people who have periods. The stigma and taboos about periods are directly linked to a lack of education or miseducation on the subject of periods. This societal misperception is also reinforced by how we see periods on television and in advertisements. For example, I have never seen red blood spilled onto a sanitary product in an advertisement. Instead, I see a blue liquid poured onto the pad. This signals to me that periods and blood are not something to talk about. They are something to whisper about. We need to question why society makes us feel that our natural body functions are not normal.
The cost of sanitary products prohibits many people from managing their period safely and hygienically. In Ireland, tampons can cost anywhere from €1.50 to €6 per pack, and sanitary towels range from €2 to €6 per pack. Although Ireland has no tax on these items, there is a tax on reusable menstrual cups, which are more environmentally friendly and cost €24 to €30, plus 23% VAT. There are also other associated costs with having a period. In Ireland, nearly 70% of young women needed pain relief medication for their period. These things add up and disproportionately affect people who cannot afford sanitary products. 12.8% of women and girls live in poverty worldwide. In India, for example, approximately 355 million menstruating women cannot afford sanitary products and are vulnerable to period poverty. Poverty is also persistent in Ireland. 2,221 women were recorded as homeless by the State in May 2020. These women do not have free access in emergency accommodation to sanitary products. The same is true for asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres. The meagre weekly allowance in Direct Provision is €38.80 per week, making it difficult to manage periods. It is clear that the government should provide sanitation products in these instances. Without access to these products, the ability to have a period with dignity is threatened.
“With schools closed due to Covid-19 in many countries and health care services only dealing with critical cases, the flow of information provided to people who have periods has been disrupted”
Menstrual supplies are essential items. Without them, we are unable to manage our period with confidence and dignity. Unfortunately, Covid-19 disrupted supply chains and stock, meaning that there was a loss of access to sanitary products. The lack of awareness in government about this issue was highlighted when sanitary products were not initially listed as essential supplies in many countries. This reflects the general lack of female leadership as without women in decision-making positions issues such as sanitary supplies are an afterthought! National committees set up to deal with Covid-19 responses have been gender imbalanced. A report which surveyed 30 countries found that of the countries which established these committees, 74% had fewer than one-third female membership and only one committee was gender-equal. Notably, countries with more women in leadership positions have had on average a more gender-sensitive response to Covid-19. Women are needed to create a more equal and holistic response to Covid-19 and ensure important issues like menstrual health are not forgotten about.
The lockdown of society, economic uncertainty and widespread job losses have put menstrual products out of reach for many. UN Women Reports have stated that people are resorting to newspaper, socks and toilet paper to soak up menstrual blood. Charities working on period poverty have also noted an increase in demand for sanitary products. One charity said that the number of sanitary packs it handed out has increased five-fold. A national charity in the UK stated that it usually distributed 5,000 packs a month but this increased to more than 23,000 in the three months after lockdown.
Covid-19 has brought period poverty to light. I hope that Covid-19 will not only reignite the conversation on the issue of period poverty but also prompt vital action. We have an opportunity to reimagine a world in which period poverty does not persist. In this world, the government will ensure access to education and digital technologies is affordable and accessible, and that information flows to those who need it most. Sanitary products should also be made available to those who are most vulnerable and need them as essential items. New Zealand has already begun to provide free period products for girls in certain schools and will roll this out nationwide within three years. Unfortunately, this endeavour has been disrupted by Covid-19 with school closures. This is a start but it should not be the end in providing sanitary products for people who menstruate. Those experiencing poverty, homeless and in direct provision should not have to pay for essential products. The state should provide these.
We need to end period poverty. Period.
Featured photo by Anique