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Image courtesy of Oxfam
Last month, the government set in motion its promise made in March 2019; that free sanitary products be made available to all primary and secondary schools across England. It is about time. In an age of increasing equality and social awareness of societal issues, it seems that open conversations regarding female menstruation have, until now, been left behind.
Whilst this demonstration of government intervention on the issue is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still much more to be done if we are to significantly alleviate the struggles of period poverty for women. The scheme, whilst encouraging, only ‘urges’ schools across the country to take up the ‘offer’ of free sanitary products and is by no means mandatory or enforced. Meanwhile, contraceptive methods and condoms remain free in most academic institutions and NHS clinics – if only women’s biological needs were treated with the same necessity and liberality as contraception.
According to the Independent, a quarter of women miss several days of work or school because they cannot afford sufficient amounts of sanitary products. This is outrageous, but not surprising. The average pack of sanitary towels can cost up to £4. For most women, this is unlikely to last a full cycle. In fact, in 2018, Labour MP Danielle Rowley suggested that the average cost of a woman’s period in the UK over the course of a year is £500. This is not to forget the added cost of pain relief. Quite simply, this is a figure that too many women in the country are unequipped to pay.
The lack of affordable products for women has produced more deep-rooted damage than merely on a financial level. Menstruation is still treated with an attitude of taboo and shame, despite it being nothing more than a biological product of female sex organs. Periods are not a choice. They are not an ‘accident’, they are a fact of life, and they happen. Periods are a normal, healthy aspect of womanhood and deserve to be treated as the natural occurrence that they are. If the government truly wants to end period poverty and the unwarranted stigma that surrounds it, sanitary products must be made a necessary availability in not only schools but in all workplaces.
The commodification of sanitary products is yet another obstacle to female equality. Periods are not a luxury, so why should we have to pay to deal with them? Having these products readily available in educational and working environments would ensure that women would not have to fear coming on their periods unexpectedly. It means a more productive day of learning and doing. More importantly, it means a breaking down of the ludicrous stigma surrounding periods that they are something to be kept private or hidden. Periods are real, they happen, and we must not only accept it but free women from the financial and stigmatic burden that they currently pose.