Global period poverty should be a thing of the past
On average, women start menstruating between the ages of eight and 16 and do not usually stop until their mid-50s. To put that into perspective, that is seven days of bleeding per month for over 40 years, equating to around 500 period cycles in a lifetime… ten whole years of flow! In the womb, a female foetus has around seven million egg cells; by birth, she only has two million. By puberty, a woman has a mere 400,000 – she is born with all the eggs she will ever have. Periods are occurring in half the world population at all times, and yet there is not enough being done to ensure that women worldwide can menstruate safely and with as little stress as possible.
Menstruation does not just account for the seven days of discharging tissue and blood from the vagina – it can include the week prior to your period and the week of recovery afterwards. Women most commonly experience cramps, mood swings, bloating, acne, changes in sex drive, fatigue, breast tenderness, limb aches, headaches, nausea, constipation, cravings, indigestion, adverse sleeping patterns and spotting. So, for three out of every four weeks of a cycle, some women are suffering severe hormonal imbalances. It is important to note, however, that the effects vary from woman to woman, with some becoming bed-bound and others barely noticing a difference in their daily lives. It seems to be partially a genetic disposition, partially just plain bad luck!
And not everyone is lucky enough to curl up in bed with painkillers, a hot water bottle, some chocolate to soothe the pain and the reassuring knowledge that she has sanitary products on hand.
We are facing a crisis in women’s health known as period poverty. Now when the word "poverty" is thrown around, most people tend to relate the notion to an unfortunate circumstance of somebody far away; but that is significantly inaccurate and arguably quite ignorant. Period poverty is a major issue faced by women from every corner of the globe, and has only started to gain publicity in the last two years.
Just last month, a shocking study by Women for Independence discovered that one in five women in Scotland are unable to afford sanitary products, and many girls across the UK are missing school due to their lack of access to safe sanitary products. On rare occasions, period poverty even becomes deadly, with women suffering Toxic Shock Syndrome as a result of leaving a tampon in for too long – often due to not being able to afford enough fresh ones to last their whole period. Studies have shown that women are using old socks, rags, newspaper and scrunched up toilet roll as a replacement for sanitary products. Aside from the major health risks associated with this, such as thrush, UTIs and more dangerous infections, women speak of the embarrassment of trying to disguise it under their clothes, their discomfort throughout the day and the ultimate fear of leaking through clothing in front of peers. Females are missing out on work, school and leisure as a result of period poverty and this is unacceptable.
In September 2017, Labour MPs pledged to set aside £10 million of the education budget to go towards ending period poverty in schools and ensure that girls are not disadvantaged in their education due to a biological necessity. This followed a pilot scheme in Scotland, July 2017, which saw 1000 girls from low-income households receiving free menstrual hygiene products.
Over a lifetime, women are expected to spend around £20,000 as a result of menstruation and this can include replacements for underwear that becomes ruined due to a lack of hygiene products. Right here at the University of Glasgow, both unions already provide free sanitary products in their bathrooms, and between 5 March and 16 March the QMU will be collecting donations of underwear on behalf of the charity "Smalls for All". The charity seeks to provide underwear and bras to women and children in Africa, helping with basic hygiene needs and allowing teenage girls to attend school while on their periods. More information is on their Facebook page, and I urge everyone to get involved – men and women alike!
Moving away from the western world, there have been harrowing stories from all around the world regarding menstruation. In Nepal, women on their periods are banished into filthy cowsheds and entirely isolated, only being fed salted bread and rice. In places like India, Kenya and Cambodia, mattress stuffing and leaves are commonly used as sanitary towels. But there is a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. This time last year, free menstrual pads were provided to girls in Kenyan schools, and the Indian state of Kerala saw the year out by launching the "She Pad" scheme, distributing free pads to over 300 schools. These are crucial indications that things are changing in even some of the poorest places on the planet.
Worldwide, governments are beginning to understand that feminine hygiene is a human right, and action is finally being taken. In spite of its potentially painful side effects, financial load, stigma and inconvenience, menstruation is also a miraculous biological occurrence that allows for the survival of our species. Surely, all women, regardless of race, culture and class, deserve dignity and support for something that is ultimately crucial for the future of all.