Why are periods still not taken seriously?

England’s latest policy review puts Women’s health and safety on the line.

Recent statements from Northern Irish Health Minister Robin Swann are just another reminder that our society still has a long way to go before it achieves gender equality. Turning down a proposal to make period products free in all schools, colleges, and public buildings, Mr Swann stated that period products are “not classified as health products”.

The suggestion that the proposed scheme is a “far-reaching duty”, demonstrates a willing ignorance towards period poverty from this significant public figure. However, this symbolises a more systemic issue of gender inequality in our society. As long as men who do not menstruate, continue to dominate positions of power, free period products will simply not be a priority for the majority of governments.

It is no coincidence that Scotland, the only one of the four nations of the United Kingdom headed by a woman, is where period products are readily available in all schools, colleges, and universities, as well as a number of other public bodies, for free. In England however, with a cabinet where five out of twenty-three members are women, and only 34% make up the entire House of Commons, free period products will never be top of the agenda.

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This does not negate the huge leaps that have been made in recent years, with the abolishment of tampon tax in the UK and period products now classed as an ‘essential item’. Moreover, a recent scheme in England has meant schools can apply for free period products for 16–19-year-olds from underprivileged backgrounds. However, the scheme is only a three-year program, which has barely been advertised, and only stretches to 16-19 year olds. When the average age to start your period is 12, is it just another way for the government to brush aside the question of serious legislation? Are these changes just for show?

Mr Swann’s comments are just another reminder that we need to keep lobbying for change. In the UK 35% of girls have taken time off school because of their period, and in Northern Ireland alone the figure is as high as 71%. With education in crisis after the pandemic, surely governments should be doing all they can to get students into schools. Period poverty is a real thing, with young girls and women unable to afford products essential to their day-day lives, which has detrimental impact on school attendance and thus academic achievement. A PHS survey revealed that nine in ten girls in the UK say that period poverty is a real issue, why can politicians not see this as well?

So, few countries provide free period products, and education is a massive problem. For many children periods are just a strange line on a graph which you have to memorise for GCSEs, and not until the ages of fourteen or fifteen. It also reduces this huge part of a woman’s life to a mere line, downplaying the serious impact it has on women’s lives. Until this changes, there will be very little physical action, especially when Westminster is dominated by the white male.

We still need to keep talking about periods and dismantling the shame and stigma attached to them. No girl in the 21st century deserves to feel embarrassed about menstruation, and no one should have to worry about where their next tampon or pad will come from. Free period products make it easier for people to participate in society, enabling heightened concentration in schools and work. However, this is not far enough, the real way to end period poverty is by increasing education, for boys and girls, and talking openly about the topic.

Period poverty is a real thing, and we still need to dismantle the taboo around menstruation.

Image courtesy of SookyungAn via Pixabay