Ending period poverty

Stopping shame is essential

Dani Barrington

Government and governance, Social policy, Health | Australia, Asia, The World

18 October 2019

The ability to manage a period hygienically and safely is crucial, and our policies are beginning to reflect this. However, an approach to end the shame associated with menstruation has to be the next step, Dani Barrington writes.

When it comes to entertainment, blood sells. Kill Bill: Volume 1 was released in October 2003. Described as a “blood bath” and “bloody, empty bliss” by film critics, it has so far grossed over $180 million and won multiple awards. It’s not just on the silver screen either: since its debut in 2011 Game of Thrones – arguably one of the bloodiest shows ever on television – has made HBO $3.1 billion in subscriptions alone.

In August 2019, Asaleo Care, the makers of Libra menstrual pads, aired adverts which depicted period blood as red, rather than blue, for the first time on Australian TV.

In response, Ad Standards received over 600 complaints, calling the advert “offensive and inappropriate” and “demeaning to women”. Ad Standards found in Asaleo Care’s favour, but the incident shows that for many, the acceptability of blood on screen appears to depend on where exactly someone is bleeding from.

More on this: Toppling taboos

Half of the earth’s population will bleed from their vagina at some point. It doesn’t matter whether the person is rich or poor, what religion they practice, or which country they call home.

When I began working in menstrual hygiene management a decade ago, the focus was very much on ‘poor girls in poor countries’.

This raised crucial questions: did they have something hygienic to bleed on, and a place to manage this? Within a few years, the media began to report how homeless women and girls in high-income countries and Australian Indigenous girls in remote communities manage their periods without access to hygienic materials.

Now the Internet is full of stories about abolishing the tampon tax globally and ending ‘period poverty’ so that girls have enough menstrual materials that they can attend school.

There are well-meaning organisations the world over providing free disposable or reusable menstrual pads, tampons, cups, underwear, and more. Governments in high and low-income countries have implemented policies to make menstrual materials free in schools and prisons, although whether the amount provided is adequate is debated.

Whilst there are reasonable misgivings to be had over the cultural, environmental, and practical appropriateness of some of the solutions being touted, this remains a great step forward. Menstruators the world over need something to bleed on or in, and they must be able to do so without embarrassment.

As Professor Chris Bobel repeatedly says, “Pads can’t fix prejudice”. Menstrual products have traditionally been advertised as a way to hide the fact that you are menstruating.

More on this: Ending menstruation stigma in Nepal

Most of us have been taught from a young age that menstruation is shameful and shouldn’t be talked about. This has a very high cost. The distress of staining her school uniform with period blood recently led a Kenyan girl to commit suicide.

Despite current progress, these policies often overlook the fact that menstruators also need to be able to do something with their used materials, whether that be washing or disposing of them.

This too is shrouded in taboo, as another expert, Hannah Robinson, discovered via research into menstrual disposal behaviours. Her work showed that across all countries the strongest factor linked with disposal behaviour is girls’ fear of exposing their menstrual status.

Her results made me reflect on my own experience.

I come from a family of three girls, with a mum who instilled feminist values in me from a young age. Yet during my teenage years, I would carefully wrap used pads in toilet paper, tuck them inside my pants, and dash to the other end of the house to dispose of them in Mum’s bathroom bin.

I didn’t want my Dad or my sisters to know I had my period. I wouldn’t even talk to my Mum about it; each month I would find a packet of pads on my bed – there was no way I could face the humiliation of purchasing them myself.

More on this: Policy File: Poverty’s many dimensions

Had I been open about my period it was unlikely I would be told I was being offensive and inappropriate. Yet I still hid, or at least attempted to hide, my menstrual status, even from those closest to me.

Being able to manage one’s period is a human right. This includes materials to bleed on or in, clean facilities in which to manage menstruation, and a place to wash or discard of used items. For some households, these items are not prioritised in the budget and external assistance is necessary.

Menstruators also need to know that their period is not shameful and that they can ask for help when they need it – whether that be from within their household or not. There are many who would rather use wadded up toilet paper or dirty textiles to hide their menstrual status than talk about it or ask for assistance.

Period poverty is real, and policies to combat it must go beyond the physical and include the social. They must work on erasing the shame menstruators feel for a normal bodily function.

In an era where it’s not uncommon to turn the television on to see blood splattered across a wall, we should be able to end the shame half the population feels for losing a few tablespoons of blood each month.

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