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Padding it out: The fight for period dignity

Normalising period dignity helps to keep women healthy, safe and solvent. Knowing the risks of withholding free products makes clear just how urgent and crucial these resources are.

Few of us have achieved something remarkable from falling down an interweb rabbit hole. But in 2014, then-student Laura Coryton "procrastinated revising for exams" and looked into how the UK taxation system works.

What she found was that items like private helicopter maintenance, horse and crocodile meat, alcoholic jellies, Jaffa Cakes and bingo were all classed as tax-exempt essentials, while towels and tampons attracted a 5% consumption tax.

And so began a social media revolution: #EndTamponTax. 

The status quo around tampons in the United States was similar to the UK. In all 50 states, period products were taxed, while men’s products like hair loss treatment Rogaine and erectile dysfunction drug Viagra were tax exempt.

As a result, attorney Jennifer Weiss-Wolf led a Campaign For Menstrual Equity, which set out to dismantle the period sales tax, one state at a time. Now, period products are "only" taxed in 21 US states, two-and-a-bit years after the UK abolished its own "illogical and sexist" tampon tax. 

These changes show that governments are ready to break down the taboo that allowed this financial sexism to flourish in the first place. But ending the tampon tax is just the start.

Enter: The concept of true period freedom

True period freedom is best measured by actual access to menstrual products and, in several parts of the globe, this is sorely lacking. In August 2022, Scotland became the first-ever country to offer all period supplies free of charge. By law, obtaining menstrual products must be a "reasonably easy and reasonably dignified" process for "anyone who needs them". This typically means that free packs of towels and tampons can be collected from pharmacies.

Scotland’s approach - writing free period provisions into the law - is ahead of the curve. But it's not a globally widespread approach.

Of the 800 million women and girls who menstruate daily, 500 million do not have access to safe period protection for chiefly financial reasons. Dutch Period! (magazine) founder Paula Kragten explains, “where there is poverty, there is automatically “menstruatie-armoede’ or “period poverty”, the generalised term for lack of period provisions. Their absence unleashes myriad disadvantages for women and girls, especially in the Global South.

Freedom4Girls, The Cova Project

In the absence of government, Freedom4Girls provides free sanitary towels in the UK and Kenya. Founder Tina Leslie says that pad scarcity in Kenya renders them very expensive. The result is transactional sex - sex for pads - among schoolgirls, in turn increasing teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

It also means that girls are unable to continue their education. By skipping and dropping school, girls miss "confidence-building activities like sports", says Geena Dunne.

Dunne is the CEO of The Cova Project, an organisation that works to ensure menstrual cup availability across Africa. According to Dunne, "period poverty is one of the most significant barriers to equality". If you have your period, and you can't participate in school and sports, shame breeds where self-esteem, teamwork, and self-love should be growing instead.

Next steps

So, what other measures can help to address period poverty? How can other countries follow in Scotland’s footsteps?

Tina Leslie says that as a starting point, "there should be no extra profits being made out of a basic need". Dunne adds that "Period poverty is an entirely solvable problem. The solutions exist but they’re expensive and no one wants to foot the bill." On the African continent, "you’d be hard-pressed to find an NGO or Community Based Organisation without a menstrual health arm to their work."

So what’s delaying the fight for period justice?

Dunne highlights that there is so much work to do before period poverty can be tackled; including "training, stigma breaking, and community outreach".

While we address these obstacles, the issues relating to period poverty perpetuate, sowing the seeds for long-term repercussions that will manifest in years to come.

Increased health issues like fungal infections and UTIs. Infertility. Lowered population. Missing school. Gaps in crucial knowledge. Unemployment. Inability to sustain oneself. Transactional sex. PTSD. A pad shortage means far more than a struggle to keep clean for 3-7 days every month.

All in all, period dignity and freedom is a crucial minimum standard when it comes to gender equality and empowering women.