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.”