This Saturday is World Menstrual Hygiene Day. Never heard of it? Well that may be part of the problem. Established in 2014 by WASH United (a Berlin based non-profit which advocates for safe sanitation, hygiene and clean water), the day is a global movement dedicated to creating a world where no one is stigmatised, excluded or discriminated against because they menstruate. Brilliantly, it is held every year on 28 May, which represents the average 28-day cycle, with five days menstruating.
It was initially concocted in 2012, while the WASH team were on a project in India regarding the taboos around sanitation. “Through working alongside the Indian government, we learned that menstruation was an even bigger taboo than sanitation,” Ina Jurga, the international coordinator for Menstrual Hygiene Day, tells me. “When going deeper into the issue, we learned that hundreds of millions of women, girls and others who menstruate are prevented from going to school, earning an incoming and participating in everyday life just because they have periods. Because of the stigma related to menstruation, very few people were talking about it.”
Despite apparent in-roads into this issue, thanks to UK-based period poverty campaigns spearheaded by the likes of Amika George, not a lot has really shifted on this problem globally. “A quarter of the global population menstruates every month, but research shows that an astounding 500 million people worldwide don’t have what they need to manage their menstruation safely, hygienically and without shame,” Jurga says, adding that, beyond the crippling health and economic implications for menstruating individuals, this actually has a huge knock-on effect when it comes to society and the economy at large. This has severe consequences in terms of health, educational and income-earning opportunities, as well impacting their ability to fully and equally participate in society. Management consulting firm Kearney estimates the annual economic damage caused by unaddressed menstruation-related challenges at hundreds of billions of USD globally.
It’s tempting to consign issues relating to menstruation taboos and period poverty to so-called ‘developing’ nations. Or, to think that period poverty in the UK is the preserve of the very few and the very unfortunate. But, the fact is, this issue is insidious. It permeates every society, every culture and every economy. It is ill-responded to in governments and policies across the globe, reflecting a world still operating from within a patriarchal framework, where the health concerns of a quarter of the global population are somehow still regarded as a niche special interest. Or, to put it in VAT terms, a monthly ‘hobby’ of ours which necessitates the use of ‘luxury goods’.
When period poverty in the UK became a widespread discussion thanks to the pioneering efforts of campaigners like Amika George, it led to big wins. In 2019, the UK government pledged £2million to help support organisations to end period poverty by 2030 and in 2021, the so-called tampon tax was abolished. Yet these lofty aims have been somewhat undercut by the economic impact of the pandemic; a recession and a crippling cost of living crisis that is actually plunging more and more people into period poverty. Data from Bloody Good Period, a charity that provides period products to those who cannot afford them, found that there was a 78 per cent increase in demand during the first few months of 2022, compared to the same period in 2020, rising from 7,452 packs of period products to 13,284. A recently released survey from WaterAid found that 1 in 4 UK women struggle to afford period products.
“We've just seen a massive increase in demand, which isn't surprising,” says Caroline Herman. She is the winner of our inaugural Harper’s Bazaar Change Leader award, and the founder of All Yours, a local initiative she began in the 2020 lockdown, which collates boxes of period products for those who cannot afford them. “We're on the cusp of doing 6,000 boxes, which will be quite a milestone for us,” she says. “Every time we do another thousand, it makes me really sad, because it shows that the demand is not going away. We’ve increased the territory that we cover and we've got almost 40 volunteers.”
Herman sees that period poverty looks likely to be a more far-reaching issue than ever before, thanks to the spiralling cost of living, but may also become more eye-opening. She has found herself in frustrating conversations with local MPs (even female) who fundamentally misunderstand or doubt its importance or prevalence. “‘Surely parents can just send their kids in with extra clean underwear’ is what we get asked a lot by MPs and I have to say that, no, for people in real poverty, that’s often not an option.”
“Unfortunately, I think there's still a real stigma around the idea of being poor,” Herman continues. “It's come from years of stereotype-building but, interestingly, I think some of these people who perhaps mock the women that we help, are now the closest to poverty that they've seen in their lifetime. They are suddenly realising, actually, you're always maybe two or three bills away from being in that position yourself…”
Yet Herman believe that, despite wins on tampon tax and pledges, we are still fundamentally not prioritising issues which impact women. She runs period-awareness workshops in schools in Wales, but funding in England for this is non-existent. She sees it in rules around reusable period pants - the most innovative and sustainable menstrual product and one which would see a huge reduction in cost for families struggling to keep up with monthly bills for multiple menstruating individuals. “But they are still taxed as a luxury item and the treasury's response was that it was too difficult to tell the difference between a pair of knickers and a pair of period pants,” she says, before laughing; “A bloke had to have come up with that response…”
Despite a perceived uptick in awareness around menstruation, it seems we still have far to go. We do not, after all, have menstrual leave - as was announced recently in Spain - which itself reveals how little we truly comprehend about the debilitation wrought by period pain on so many. Endometriosis after all, affects 1 in 10 women and we still collectively know so little about it. Steps towards a better understanding are being made, thanks to new documentary Below the Belt, and the prevalence of the condition in the BBC’s new juggernaut Sally Rooney adaptation, Conversations with Friends. “But I think we still don’t consider women the same way we do men,” Herman says. “Just look at the situation in Ukraine. There will be so many women coming here who will need period products. I bet no one has really thought about that yet…”
This Menstrual Hygiene Day, WASH has launched a digital bracelet to be worn in online selfies as part of a campaign to help put an end to period stigma. To get involved, you can get your bracelet here, and include the main hashtags for MH Day 2022 - #MHDay2022 and #WeAreCommitted - in your posts.
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