We need to talk. Period.

The politics of periods

It has been estimated that those who mensturate in Ireland spend between €132 to €208 on sanitary products annually. This is a total cost of up to €8,100 over a lifetime. There is an almost automatic assumption that those who need period supplies can afford them and they should sacrifice their income to avoid social embarrassment. There is also the common misconception that period supplies start and end with a mere packet of tampons or pads. However, this is not the case. Periods often require the use of pain relievers, hygiene products and, occasionally, prescriptions from GPs. Period poverty is a problem no person should ever have to face. It is an issue that has been hidden away by a shroud of shame and guilt and finally, in 2021, legislation has been proposed in the Seanad to make period products free in Ireland. But why has this legislation taken so long and how much does this problem affect the Irish population?

Period poverty refers to a situation where a person cannot afford sanitary products during menstruation due to financial difficulty, and activism to end this issue in Ireland is far from new. Homeless Period Ireland, founded in 2016, is affiliated with the UK branch of the group that pushed for the Scottish Period Products (Free Provision) Act that passed in November of 2020. Homeless Period Ireland collects donations of free sanitary products from a number of drop-off points throughout Ireland and drops care packages to homeless shelters, direct provision centers, and food banks. Homeless Period Belfast runs a similar operation in Northern Ireland. In order to combat Covid-19 restrictions, Homeless Period Ireland have partnered with Easho, a service that allows users to buy from wishlists to allow for ease of access when it comes to donating to the charity. Similar political efforts to eradicate period poverty in Ireland have been prominent since 2019. In March of that year, the Irish Women’s Parliament Caucus called on the Irish Government to provide safe and suitable sanitary products in schools, universities, hospitals, refuges, homeless services, detention centres and Garda stations. The Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party’s Programme for Government 2020 has also committed to providing a range of free, adequate, safe and suitable period products in all publically-funded educational settings in Ireland, a promise they have yet to fulfill. They will, however, receive the chance if the Labour bill introduced into the Seanad during the last week of January passes.

The Period Products (Free Provisions) Bill, introduced by Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan, promises to make pads and tampons freely available in schools, education centres and other public buildings. It may appear as though period poverty affects very little of the population, but surveys conducted by Plan International contradict this and reveal the true cost of menstruation. Almost 50% of girls between the ages of 12 and 19 found it difficult to pay for sanitary products, with one in ten of those surveyed admitting they were forced to use “less suitable” sanitary products as a result of the high monthly cost. The pandemic also worsened the issue of period poverty for many across the country with a Plan International survey conducted in 2020 revealing that up to four in ten people reported that accessing period supplies became harder as the pandemic unfolded due to panic buying . Ultimately, purchasing these supplies became more costly due to shops not running promotional offers to discourage this bulk buying. Some also reported that the added emotional stress of the pandemic amplified their PMS symptoms and period pains. Other participants expressed that they felt guilty going to their GP with period related issues. It is clear that these issues have been placed on the backburner in this country for too long and the pandemic has revealed how much people who experience periods sacrifice their wellbeing for an apparent greater good.

Although this Bill is a welcome change in eradicating period poverty, one has to look to the future of menstrual products. Unfortunately, most sustainable products, such as menstrual cups or period underwear, are either subject to VAT or are simply too expensive. Making these products accessible to all is important, but so is protecting the environment. Menstrual products are the fifth most common item to be found washed up on beaches. The government must invest heavily in this scheme if it is to be a true success. Working with companies such as Thinx, Knix, Proof, Cora and Mooncup will not only help to eradicate the cost of sustainable products, but will also increase their consumption across the general public. Installing tampon and pad machines is all well and good, but can we rely on the government to supply us with suitable, sustainable and high quality products?

The government could turn to international examples for inspiration on how to de-stigmatize periods. Both Scotland and New Zealand have rolled out programmes to supply schools with free sanitary products for all students with the former promising to supply adequate menstrual educational programmes to all schools. But as educational facilities remain closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, the government must think of innovative ways to help those in need of both free products and essential education with regard to maintaining menstrual hygiene. Plan Ireland surveys revealed a fact that is not surprising to anyone who went through the Irish education system: 60% of women reported dissatisfaction with the way they were taught about periods. The gaps in Ireland’s Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programmes allow for complaints to be made about tampon advertisements for being “obscene” and “offensive”, as we saw back in the summer of 2020. 

We are simply not given enough information on how to take care of our bodies. Most of my own knowledge on periods comes from peers, female family members and, unfortunately, the internet. Small things like finding out caffeine makes cramps worse or that certain symptoms are completely normal would have saved me years of pain and stress. Looking to the future, I can only hope that the Irish education and health systems will start to acknowledge this bodily action that occurs to half the population, twelve times a year. 

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Sex and Relationships Editor and Co-Podcast Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of History and Economics.