Period Poverty & Politics 

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“Women intimate hygiene products – sanitary pads and tampons on white background” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Elisha V

After decades of women’s campaigning, Scotland is now the first country to provide free period products for anyone in need, a trailblazing move that attempts to end period poverty. 

 

As defined by ActionAid, an international charity that caters to helping women and girls in poverty, period poverty is the insufficient “access to sanitary products, safe, hygienic spaces in which to use them, and the right to manage menstruation without shame or stigma.”.

 

The monthly difficulties of menstruating and its associated stress symptoms are worsened by the high price of period products. Period poverty is a spectrum; some women have to sacrifice other essential items to buy period products, while others can’t afford any sort of product and have to make do with toilet paper or rags.

 

Labour Member of Scottish Parliament – the equivalent of a Democrat congresswoman – Monica Lennon proposed the Period Products Bill in 2019 but has been campaigning on this since 2016. The Bill was unanimously passed in Scottish Parliament on November 24, showing how politicians across the political spectrum felt that everyone deserves free and dignified access to period products. Scotland was also the first country to provide free period products in schools and universities in 2018, initiating a domino effect of city, state and national governments following suit. 

 

COVID-19, schools, and period poverty 

Whilst adapting to adolescence is already challenging enough, lack of period products can have severe effects on teen girls’ education. When girls lack period products, many skip school, and as a result, fall behind on their education. Often, these are the same girls who also experience class-based education inequalities. Missing even a single day of school every month can have profound implications on educational development, which in turn limits these girls from accessing higher education and upward mobility. With a compromised education, these teen girls have an even narrower path of escaping the poverty in which they grew up in, further repeating the cycle of period poverty for them and their future daughters. 

 

Schools providing free period products is certainly a step in the right direction, but COVID-19 lockdowns and remote education have meant that girls who rely on school bathrooms for free period products have been left high and dry. The pandemic has overall exacerbated poverty, which means that low-income families have a reduced budget and reduced priority for buying period products. 

 

As a woman interviewed by the BBC explained, “If you can’t afford your food, your priority is not going to be getting a period product, it’s feeding yourself and your children.”

 

It’s clear that free period products in school are not enough: we need to set up systems of free distribution that can withstand lockdown restrictions.

 

Tampon Tax 

In addition to advocating for free access to period products, women’s rights groups have, for decades, pushed for the removal of “Tampon Tax” – a sales tax levied on period products in which other essential products, like groceries and medication, aren’t subjected to. 

 

Tampon Tax contributes to “Pink Tax”, the phenomenon where women pay higher prices for gender-specific products than men do. Women have higher rates of poverty in every age group, particularly among 18-24 year olds, with 17.1% of American men living in poverty compared to 21.35% of American women in 2019. The pay gap and other gender inequalities are largely to blame, but the monthly costs that women have to pay for a majority of their lives do tally up to further economically disenfranchise women. 

 

A handful of states have repealed the Tampon Tax, as well as institutions like the Federal Bureau of Prisons taking the commendable step of providing free period products for all inmates, but the US is still a long way off from fully combatting period poverty. The issue also greatly affects homeless women, which is why many shelters and food pantries have started to provide free period products. 

 

Although states and countries would lose revenue from removing the tampon tax, reducing the price of period products establishes that feminine hygiene is a necessity, not a luxury. Period products are arguably more of a vital healthcare product as, for example, sunscreen, which is exempt from sales tax in the US. If governments cite lost revenue as a justification to uphold the tampon tax, it’s highly unlikely that they would want to provide the funding for universal free period products. Combatting period poverty is an uphill battle, and demanding free products for all is unfortunately too much of an ask when governments are already reluctant to lower the price of period products. 

 

The future

Seeing as Scotland set the trend for various school districts to provide free period products, it is hopeful that other countries may follow, expanding their period product access beyond schools. However, pandemic recessions that have battered governments worldwide, may deprioritize this goal. The new legislation in Scotland is a novel initiative that will not only reduce the financial burden that women face, but the overall “Pink Tax” will narrow, leading the way to truly dismantle gender-based discrimination.

 

Period poverty connects to the larger picture of feminism in today’s world, which focuses on tackling particular contemporary issues, such as sexual harassment in the workplace. Hopefully, with enough activism and public awareness, politicians around the world will join the fight against period poverty too.