“Mr speaker, I would like to announce to you today and to the house and perhaps you’ll excuse me for my lateness, that today, am on my period and its cost me this week already, £25. We know the average cost of a period in the UK over a year is £500, many women can’t afford this. What is the minister doing to address period poverty?”
On Thursday, June 28th, the Scottish Labour MP, Danielle Rowley broke the bloody taboo surrounding periods by making the above declaration and asking one of the most pertinent questions about women’s health and wellbeing we should all be asking all in one breathe during a parliamentary session.
At first, I was bursting with excitement, and then I thought, why only now? And why is this such a big deal in 2018? Surely in an ideal world periods would easily be talked about as normal natural occurrences, that they are.
It was a hot humid evening, like most days. My mother was yet to return from the local market where she traded, I was 7 or 8 years old when my father sat me down for the first time and told me about periods.
About two years later when I had my first period, an updated version of the sex education I had received earlier was uploaded to my young mind. I was fitted with a roll of white toilet paper, my mother demonstrated how to roll it, and put it in my underwear. I felt privileged to have been equipped with information that prepared me for this life event that would otherwise have been scary and the means to bleed in a dignifying way, because where we lived, no one talked about periods, and women rarely had safe and hygienic materials for bleeding.
The older I became, the more I began to feel the truth and openness with which my parents spoke to me about periods drown out in the humdrum of everyday shameful talk or no talk about menstruation from my school mates, and just about everyone else.
While my parents taught me about my body, what to expect of it, friends on the other hand, taught me how to hide – hide the acne that would often appear on my face during my period, reminded me to always bring a jacket to school when am bleeding, in anticipation of a period stain on my pristine white pleated school uniform skirt.
This time of my life was confusing, I was drawn into an uphill task of sharing what I knew about periods to those who knew nothing about it, at other times, I was arguing excitedly with others in a futile effort to change their minds about the misconceptions they held on to.
Could my father have been wrong when he said periods were positive life events?
15 years later, I was working directly with young women in deprived communities in Nigeria through Project ASHA. I soon saw that attitudes towards periods hadn’t changed at all, if anything, they may have worsened. Most of our project participants had not received any form of sex education, had no idea what periods were except it was something that happened every month, or not – when they got pregnant.
The young women involved in our weekly focus group sessions could hardly believe famous women bled. They had somehow internalised the notion that periods were dirty and shameful. Beautiful, successful, powerful women did not bleed, they said. Periods were a burden the lesser and weaker of us had to carry, like they were some form of punishment for a future sin we were yet to commit or a sin we were born with.
Sadly, I’ve found many women and girls irrespective of their geographical locations share this sentiment in my career spanning 14years and my travels across 4 continents even before the term period poverty was coined.
Period poverty is generally defined or described as a profound lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties. In plain English, how could we justify the need to buy tampons or sanitary pads monthly when we haven’t had any meal, or haven’t paid the electricity and gas bill?
Girls often miss out on school and other life changing opportunities when they have their periods, because often, their family are too poor to provide them with sanitary products, and menstruation, is still considered taboo in many places, so that asking for help is almost impossible.
However, I believe a more fitting definition of period poverty is not only a profound lack of access to sanitary products but also a lack of access to age appropriate and timely information about period and sex. The dearth of information about period and the taboo that still surrounds the female body in my opinion is why lack of access to sanitary products persists, and this is why Ms Rowley must be commended, and celebrated for sticking her head above the parapet by not only announcing that she is bleeding but speaking truth to power by demanding to know what action is being taken to enable every woman in the UK bleed in a safe and dignified manner.
If we are not talking about periods, how can we even begin to grasp the scale of the problem and begin to galvanise change?
Granted, a lot has changed since my pubescent days, less girls miss school when on their periods, thanks largely to the efforts of organisations and governments. But there’s so much left to do.
One of the ways Project ASHA buffered the impact period poverty had on our project participants was by regularly distributing sanitary pads during group sessions and introducing reusable sanitary towels to the group. While the later was more economically viable, it wasn’t as hygienic as we had hoped, in communities such as those we work in where there’s biting poverty and lack of access to clean water, washing these reusable sanitary pads was almost impossible. The former solution just wasn’t sustainable.
Recently, I purchased a menstrual cup that has proved to be the best £13 investment I’ve made. Frankly, I wonder why I didn’t make this switch earlier. As a 30 year old woman whose mother bled into her late 50’s, my thinking is I may only need to replace this cup twice before I reach menopause, baring the occasional theft or loss, imagine how much money I will be saving in the next 10, 20 years?
Closing the poverty gap which could close the period poverty gap or providing free sanitary products for girls are only half the solution. Things will seldom change if we do not address the taboo that still surrounds menstruation head-on.
Periods should be demystified, girls should be encouraged, enabled and supported to feel confident to talk about this openly, it should be taught in schools as part of school curricula.
Parents should be encouraged and supported to equip their children with correct information about periods and leave the communication channels open so that they are always accessible when their children need to talk more.
Since first using my menstralcup, I have entertained the idea of Project ASHA supporting women with menstrual cups instead of reusable sanitary pads.
This could potentially change how girls bleed, with sanitary products becoming a once in 10years investment instead of a recurrent expenditure.
Regretfully, I suspect that we’ll come up against some brick wall in its adoption as using the menstralcup requires some mastery of the vulva and vagina and if my childhood and recollection from my work is anything to go by, exploration of any kind of the female genitalia is considered taboo – akin to masturbation which many believe is a sin.
I had some discomfort the first time I used my menstralcup. I got a mirror and torchlight and set about finding out what was wrong. A few seconds later, I pulled out the bloody cup, rinsed it out and fitted it correctly back in. I lingered, in appreciation for this invention and admiration for the marvel of my body.
I look forward to a time when period poverty - of sanitary products and information – is in the past. A time when period talk is not shameful talk.
I look forward to when every woman and girl will set about a deliberate journey to know and accept their bodies, without shame or guilt, or the slightest hesitation.