Which tax free product would you like to use to highlight your exasperation with the ‘tampon tax?’ You are probably aware by now that you have wealth of bizarre, frustratingly comic options with which to shame those MPs who voted against the recent Finance Bill Amendment. Crocodile meat? Edible cake decorations? Herbal tea? Take your pick. In our culture, menstrual hygiene apparently still takes a back seat to the right to eat the superfluities of a cake.We can only hope the frustration, even anger with this archaic defiance of logic will promote a general opening up of the discourse surrounding menstruation. At this juncture it is vital we address our relationship with periods, and confront the stigmas and taboos attached to the menstrual process.
The generally accepted figure for the amount a woman will spend on sanitary products throughout her life is £18,000. As ludicrous as that monetary sacrifice is, it will enable you to safeguard your clothes, go to school and continue your daily life each time you have your period. You are part of the lucky 12 percent of girls and women around the world who have access to sanitary products; the remaining 88 percent rely on rags, newspaper, sand, dirt and other unhygienic materials to stem menstrual bleeding. In Africa 1 in 10 girls miss school when they have their period, causing them to miss 20% of the school year. In India 23% of school age girls drop out after they start menstruating.
1.25 billion women around the world do not have access to a toilet during their periods. Water aid are currently working to reduce these figures, providing the necessary sanitation for girls and women who would otherwise be forced to go without. PlanUk is distributing hygiene packs to those fleeing fighting in Burundi; in Uganda it is supporting girls and women to make recyclable sanitary towels. As much of a monthly hassle periods are for us Britons, the global reality is that menstruation is an unaddressed, unknown phenomenon that truncates girls’ education and restricts the lives of an enormous proportion of women.
The physical problem is both exacerbated, and to a certain extent caused by a lack of discussion and acceptance of periods. In the West, we might feel self-conscious if a tampon accidently drops out of our bag. In India, communities restrict many women from daily activities such as taking a bath, cooking food and entering holy places. Some in Gujjar communities believe it is forbidden to look at your reflection during menstruation.
In Tanzania, some believe the sight of a menstrual cloth will cause its owner to be cursed. In Nepal, the very touch of a woman known to be menstruating is impure, demanding they stay away from their families and household. Such brutal stigmatization leaves no space for any discussion of better sanitation or an improvement of facilities for girls on their period. It almost captures misogyny in action; womanliness makes you dirty.
According to UNICEF, in rural Nigeria ‘some women choose not to wash their pads daily or worry about how to dispose of them out of fear that they may be vulnerable to witchcraft attacks.’ The possibility of Nigerian communities addressing the lack of access to sanitary pads is far from imminent in circumstances such as these.
We can scoff at the practices in developing countries all we like, but menstrual hygiene is an urgent issue on our doorstep. How does a homeless woman in Exeter access sanitary products? Unlike condoms and the contraceptive pill, health clinics do not distribute tampons, nor can doctors prescribe them. Even if the ‘tampon tax’ is scrapped, such products will still cost money, regardless of their reduced ‘luxuriousness.’ Exeter Feminist Society is currently collecting donations of products for Exeter Food Bank. Logic would suggest that pads and tampons be routinely distributed to disadvantaged women at homeless shelters and food banks, instead of relying solely on kind donations. But then logic would suggest that sanitary towels are at least as necessary as Jaffa cakes.
I have a feeling posterity might find this distortion of values even weirder than we do. If we are to hold any distaste for the crippling treatment of menstruating women abroad, we need to confront our domestic reservations about periods. Before we criticise some African men’s revulsion toward menstruation, we should concern ourselves with the period jokes and ‘period shaming’ doled out by boys and grown men alike in our own communities. There’s no reason for taboos to exist around this subject. Yes there’s a bin in the toilet, I have a womb. Yes there’s tampons in my shopping basket, stop squirming. They cost the bloody earth.
By Martin Whittemore and Megan Wilson (FemSoc campaigns officer). Femsoc is supporting Plan UK. See their Facebook page for more information here.