As noxious as they are, the issues around sanitary products run so much deeper than some off-colour period jokes made by men who may have never been near a woman. The Scottish Government propose to spend £5.2 million on providing free sanitary products for women – and it could not come sooner.
If you aren’t already acquainted with the term ‘period poverty’ you will be soon. Priced and taxed like luxury items, sanitary products are fast becoming unaffordable to women across Britain. According to the latest figures the average woman spends £450 a year on their period – around £18,500 in their lifetime. That’s a sizeable contribution to a house, or over two years of university tuition. In one recent BBC interview, students confessed they had to choose between buying lunch or tampons. In another, a woman described having to use a pair of socks and some tissue to control her flow because buying sanitary products was out of the question. Women can’t afford to be healthy. That’s what this is about; with sanitary products priced the way they are, women can’t afford to meet their basic needs. By providing women with free tampons the Scottish government could save them around £100 a year – £100 they should never have had to spend in the first place.
Could sanitary products ever be so expensive if periods weren’t so stigmatised? What we face at the moment is an enforced and inescapable silence overshadowing everything related to menstruation. That the government would be distributing sanitary products so publicly could start a real conversation about women’s reproductive health, and could break that silence.
Why is this necessary? For one, it’s just sexism of the highest order. Women have to go to work, to university, to school while suffering period pain – which for some, is neither healthy or realistic. They can’t complain about it, they can’t seek help – to do so would be too inappropriate for words. They have to endure jokes about an excruciating, oftentimes dangerous – and also just incredibly intimate – experience. Men don’t, simple as that.
This stigma is also incredibly dangerous. Menstruation can cause serious health problems, like toxic shock syndrome or loss of blood, or mask issues that can be life-threatening, like endometriosis. Were periods less stigmatised, were women more able to vocalise their problems and seek help without embarrassment or the contempt so many have for menstrual health, what are serious conditions would not go undiagnosed, untreated or just unheard of as they are now.
The Scottish Government’s scheme is public, is open to criticism or comment and is already starting a conversation about menstruation. While not every response is kindly meant or even remotely well-informed, a conversation is being had. For the first time, discourse about menstruation is public – and it is only through speaking publicly that stigmas can be ended.
Periods are never going to be pleasurable experiences. But the state of women’s suffering is unreasonable. That the pain and discomfort might be unavoidable one can accept – that it should come with a serious financial burden is obscene. That menstruation can be a serious health risk and so few people know about it is so incredibly dangerous. What’s more, women have to suffer through all of this in a forced silence. This is, to put it lightly, sexist beyond all belief. If the Scottish government can alleviate the financial stress alone that is incredible. If by doing so they can bring menstruation into the spotlight, create a conversation that allows women more of a voice, that would be invaluable and it would be long past time.
Image: Elisabeth Steger via Flickr