A period is a natural and biological function for women and girls and many trans men and non-binary people. Despite the fact that periods are a natural bodily function that cannot be controlled, they continue to be a taboo subject with high levels of stigma attached and are rarely discussed nor given the attention they need.
On this island, this is evident in the recent backlash and decision to ban an advertisement for Tampax tampons in July 2020, which explained how to properly insert tampons1 . The advert received 84 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) for being “crude”, “vulgar”, “disgusting”, “offensive” and allegedly “unsuitable for children” and was subsequently banned, despite the fact it simply emphasised the need to properly insert tampons for them to be effective.
The high levels of stigma around periods further prevents necessary discussion around the barriers in accessing products, including financial barriers and the social implications this creates in the everyday lives of those who struggle to access period products. This stigma around periods and the barriers attached to accessing period products can further exacerbate gender inequalities that are prevalent in Northern Ireland.
Period poverty references the lack of access to period products due to financial constraints. Therefore, those impacted by period poverty are those who need period products and are unable to afford them. The reasons for this can include low income, homelessness, abuse, health conditions which make periods more painful/heavy or because they have no income of their own. An average period lasts around five days and can cost about £8 per month for tampons and pads, with some being unable to afford this cost.
As a result, some women and girls are forced to use alternatives such as toilet roll, socks or even newspapers as they are unable to afford the sanitary products they need. Furthermore, some may need to avoid educational, work or recreational activities altogether due to not having access to products. This is clearly not acceptable and is detrimental to daily functions, in particular, impacting the ability to learn, work, concentrate and participate in everyday life.
These issues are significantly worsened for those with conditions such as endometriosis. Endometriosis is a condition that affects 1 in 10 women with symptoms of pain and heavy periods and costs the UK economy £8.2 billion a year in treatment costs, healthcare and loss of work2 . The average diagnosis time from first experiencing symptoms and receiving a diagnosis is 7.5 years. This is compounded by societal stigma around periods as well as a lack of awareness and effective treatment.
Many women and girls suffer in silence for many years with bleeding that is difficult to control. There is no doubt that the consequence of this is increased costs and increased period poverty as a result of missed days from school and work, damage to clothes, fear of leaking and increased expense with sanitary products. If the stigma and expense was eliminated, it would not only reduce expense and period poverty but would bring the topic of periods into the public domain. Increased public awareness of periods and health conditions associated with them could increase endometriosis diagnosis rates and enable women to control their symptoms more effectively.
For schoolgirls in particular, period poverty can have an extremely detrimental impact on their wellbeing and ability to study or concentrate in school as they are worried about their lack of products and how to afford them. Access to these products is essential to the health and wellbeing of women and girls across the world. In addition, trans people can also face particular stigma in purchasing period products, especially for trans children who may be “outed” or “clocked” as trans when purchasing them in shops.
If we really want to tackle stigma around periods, sanitary products should be made visible and accessible in communal places with posters and clear information about provision. For too long, women and girls have felt as though they have to hide their tampons and pads because they are seen as a source of embarrassment. This should not be the case. There is no need to hide the natural process of a period cycle. If we continue to whisper about periods and sanitary products then we add to a sense of unnecessary shame and stigma.