Following TCDSU’s announcement of a free period product scheme earlier this month, which itself followed the announcement from the government last year of a “pilot initiative which will see free, sustainable period products and dispensers for students”, period poverty seems to be slowly being recognised and addressed in Ireland.
Period poverty occurs when people who menstruate cannot access the products they need to manage their period. This can come from a variety of issues, financial reasons being one of the first things that comes to mind. Despite the fact that, unlike some of our European counterparts, Ireland has now made menstrual products taxable at the zero rate of VAT, menstrual pads, tampons and cups are nonetheless still not financially accessible enough. With the cost of living crisis still making it difficult for people to make ends meet, period products fall down the list of priorities. As the founder of Positive Period Ireland reported to Dublin Live: “If you’re struggling with your weekly shopping and need to prioritise other items, period products will always go to the bottom of the list and may even be cut off altogether. It is sadly period products that women and girls often sacrifice.”
Charities such as Positive Period Ireland aim to provide donated period products for people in need. And they are among other charities also fighting period poverty in this way — Lidl Ireland’s Period Poverty Initiative makes menstrual products more accessible, and Freedom4Girls seeks to educate people about periods and provide ‘environmentally and financially sustainable options’ of menstrual products. The Homeless Period Ireland is a volunteer-led charity which transports donated period products to centres that support people experiencing homelessness or those in Direct Provision for example. Particularly due to the housing crisis remaining a constant issue, especially in the bigger cities in Ireland, homelessness is a threat that pervades our social structure, with period poverty coming as just one of the challenging elements of this reality. And this issue is more complex than just a lack of freely available menstrual products: for example, Dublin’s noticeable lack of public toilets in comparison to many of the capital cities of our European neighbours is another way that period poverty is exacerbated in Ireland, as the absence of clean public toilets signifies a lack of safe and dignified disposal of period products.
Period poverty can also be caused by social and cultural expectations. The idea that periods are an unclean business that shouldn’t be spoken about in a certain way seems to be woven into the way we are taught about them by the media. Even the wording of the commonly used phrase “sanitary towels”, for example, seems to imply a prevention of the supposedly inherently unsanitary period. The education around periods often does not teach menstruation to both people who menstruate and those who do not, and if it does, the stigma around periods is not necessarily properly or evenly analysed. From this to pads that are marketed as discreet, it is no wonder that the stigma surrounding menstruation lives on even in 2023. Despite being something that affects half of the population, discussing periods in general, or even one’s own menstrual cycle and the effects which are often difficult to manage, is broadly considered inappropriate, or too much information.
The Irish Examiner reported a staggering 61% of Irish girls being embarrassed about their menstrual cycle; it is then no surprise that in terms of accessing menstrual products, some people are too afraid to ask for help in understanding how to manage their periods. This shame then goes hand in hand with other pillars of inequality; often it can be humiliating to admit not being able to afford menstrual products, so young people who menstruate, already a marginalised group, might then turn to not attending school or work and suffering the consequences. This in turn worsens class, gender, and social inequalities.
And to say it feels as though the world is against people who menstruate appears unfortunately to ring true. The set-up of the world as we know it, in particular the set-up of our working lives, does not lend itself well to menstruation cycles. Our working lives cater more to the health of those who don’t menstruate than those who do; if it were to cater more to the latter, we would see monthly cycles in our work patterns that match the monthly bodily cycles that can often leave us in a state of burnout or exhaustion that prevents us from performing well at work. The bodily upheaval of a period can make work life incredibly difficult, especially for those who suffer from debilitating period pain or people living with endometriosis. All of these factors also highlight that despite the new freedoms afforded to people who menstruate in the last 100 years — allowing them to adapt to the workplace and claim their space in it — the workplace has been slow to adapt to them. That said, things do seem to be catching up, albeit painfully slowly. Spain’s new policy of giving paid menstrual leave to those who experience painful periods feels sympathetic to the impact of periods, and the Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen has recently followed suit. This is encouraging, and hopefully a good sign for how periods will be more factored into a modern lifestyle in the future.
As we see society take small steps towards spreading more awareness of period poverty and seeking to find a solution, it can be frustrating to find how gradual the process has been and continues to be. But it is also encouraging. As the discourse on periods becomes more accessible and open, the stigma will inevitably decrease, and in turn we can hope to see more support for menstruating people in the future and it’s safe to say: it’s about bloody time.