Period Poverty In The Irish State

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

With reports of between 53,000 and 85,000 women in Ireland affected by period poverty, Aoife Rooney examines this issue.

The issue of period poverty has previously been a  matter that Western countries were not particularly  concerned about. However, in recent years, the issue  of equitable access to period products has entered  mainstream media, and more people are being made  aware of the extent of how many people are affected.  In a joint report by the Department of Health and the  Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration  and Youth, period poverty is defined as “inadequate  access to menstrual hygiene, including period  products, washing and waste management facilities and  education”. 

Experiencing period poverty is not limited to this  definition, and can also include social and community  isolation as a direct result of one’s period. This can be  seen in an example of a young person missing school or  a social event due to the side effects of their period. This  can extend to abdominal pains, of which non-access  to pain relief would also constitute period poverty. The  issue of period poverty is being estimated to ‘effect  between 53,000 and 85,000 women in the State’  according to the report. The minimum estimated annual  cost of period products for one person is €121. 

In February, the Department of Health published  a discussion paper entitled Period Poverty in Ireland,  National Strategy for Women and Girls, a document  which encompassed findings of the factors that  contribute to period poverty in Ireland and addressed  those most affected. The report referenced a Plan  International survey which found that “50% of girls  aged 12-19 reported occasional experience of period  poverty”. While this can be attributed to the inability to  afford products, it is also largely because of the shame  and embarrassment associated with periods, in this  age group particularly. Humiliation and discomfort  discussing a period are largely evident among younger  women and girls, with “nearly 60% of young women  and girls reporting shame and embarrassment about  their period, with over 80% uncomfortable discussing  periods with their father or a teacher”. This discomfort  in having conversations about periods can lead to other  issues. It may mean there is a lack of access to period  products as a direct result of being unable to ask. 

Oireachtas motions on period poverty date as far  back as 2019, as calls were made on the government  ensure access to a range of “free, adequate, safe and  suitable sanitary products and comprehensive, objective  menstrual education information be distributed through  all public buildings”. This would include, hospitals,  schools and universities, homeless services and direct  provision centres. If this was to come into force, it would  address a large amount of period poverty in the country.  While this tackles the main roadblocks most women face  in accessing period products, it does not cater to those  who may not have access to such buildings, namely  younger girls, who might not be at school, and those  who live rurally. It also fails to address those who may  be in controlling and abusive relationships, and those  who may not be able to leave their residence to access  these products or have access to the funds to purchase  them. This motion has yet to be made into law, so these  proposals are merely hypothetical at the moment. 

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration  and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman, wrote to direct provision  centres in recent weeks to request that they provide  sanitary products to those living in direct provision free  of charge. Dublin City Council also announced that  they aim to provide funding of €100,000 to expand  on an initiative to have access to period products in all  of their buildings. On the topic of several similar bills  being drafted on the same topic, Claire Hunt, founder  of Homeless Period Ireland (HPI), believes that “[period  poverty] is a non-contentious issue, there should be  cross-party solidarity.” 

An Irish initiative led by University of Limerick students,  Anytime of the Month, is spreading awareness on issues  related to period poverty in an attempt to destigmatize  periods. They are running seminars for businesses  to educate employees on the stigma associated with  menstruation, a factor contributing to period poverty.  They also surveyed 250 women and were able to  conclude that “college students are disproportionately  affected by period poverty”. Of their sample, 35% said  that they struggled to finance period products and  75% said that they have worn period products over the  recommended four hours due to lack of access to these  products.  

While girls and women in second and third-level  education are unequivocally suffering the effects of  period poverty, those who are homeless, in direct  provision, dealing with addiction and victims of domestic  violence are also suffering the cost of the inability to  access menstruation hygiene products. The estimated  number of homeless women who may be experiencing  period poverty is 2,591. Coolmine, a charity working  with those dealing with substance addiction, notes  that “clients with active addiction problems will have  difficulties prioritising healthcare needs over substance  use”. If legislation on the issue were passed, it would  negate the need for a choice being made whether or not  a woman will get through her period with the assistance  of period products. 

Other groups encountering issues in accessing  products to enable safe and hygienic menstruation are  Traveller and Roma women. It is reported that members  of these groups are “among the most disadvantaged and  marginalised people in Ireland”. The inability to access  period products stems from a large thread of prejudice,  people in these groups often face issues in accessing  rental accommodation, healthcare, employment and  education. Specifically, Roma women are disadvantaged  

in their ability to access government supports such as  Job Seekers Allowance, public housing or Child Benefit,  as they may be unable to provide documentation  confirming their right to reside. This then overtly affects  their ability to purchase hygiene products they may  need during their period. 

Sustainability is also an issue that needs to be  accounted for with regard to period poverty. HPI founder  Claire Hunt was also involved in research culminating  in the 2019 Department of Health report that asked:  “when the period poverty motion does pass was that  they provide plastic-free products”. While she said that  ‘I would hope the government will look at sustainable  options”, there is an understanding that sustainable  products, for example, period cups or underwear, are  not feasible options for women HPI assist. Many women  do not have regular access to hot water and washing  machines, and some have a preference for pads. Miss  Hunt also clarified that for many women who are victims  of trauma, period cups are not a suitable option. 

The issue of period poverty in the State is a wide reaching one that will necessitate specific considerations  of all groups of women to address the problem. While  the passing of legislation that would entitle people who  menstruate the access to a wide range of free period  products is a positive change, Hunt reiterates that “it  shouldn’t be seen as something amazing or radical, the  fact that we have to fight for this change in 2021 is really  frustrating.”