The price of periods

As New Zealand’s new initiative makes sanitary products free in schools, R3trospect writers explore whether other countries are doing enough

10 minute read — By Safia Bartley, Maggie Gannon, Sophia Grace, Daisy Olyett and Derry Salter.

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ready to work. Photo by Jonathan Milne on Flickr.

Introduction

By Safia Bartley

In June of 2020, New Zealand took action to tackle period poverty head on by providing access to free period products for all menstruating children and young people in education. After trialling at the end of 2020, up to 3,200 young people across 15 different schools in the Waikato region were provided with free sanitary products. This proved extremely successful, and now, in the national roll-out part of the initiative, all schools and Kura can opt-in to be a part of the scheme.

The project, which is being run by the NZ Ministry of Education, has worked with five suppliers to test a mix of different pad and tampon products, and different ways for students to access these products. The initiative recognised early on that many students did not have access to affordable sanitary products and that this can have a severe negative impact on their mental health, wellbeing and education. Similarly, they saw a gap in the curriculum on menstruation, and hope this new project will help educate people of all ages and genders, reduce the stigmatisation of periods and promote positive gender norms.

Seeing New Zealand approach such an important issue so successfully has sparked conversations around the globe about what other countries could do to handle period poverty and the negative associations people have regarding menstruation. 

New Zealand’s approach

By Maggie Gannon

As of June 2021, New Zealand’s schools will be able to provide free sanitary products for all students. That was the message of Jacinda Ardern last month, as the New Zealand government strives towards eradicating period poverty and tackling the prevalent reports that many young girls have not attended school, due to being unable to afford sufficient products.

The new policy is set to come into effect in a few months’ time and is largely the result of a successful pilot program led by Jan Tinetti; prior to this, principals and New Zealanders had long been campaigning for change, with statistics from the Youth19 survey reporting “1 in 12 students” missing school due to period-related issues.

Over the last few years there have been several global campaigns to slash tax on period products, most notably in the UK and Germany. In France, campaigners focussed on making products more readily accessible in public buildings. As a result, the French government have made the decision to install dispensers in university buildings and student hostels. Even though these policy changes – such as the abolition of tampon tax in the UK – go some way, many believe there is still more to be done to make periods sustainable for all. The VAT abolition in the UK does not cover all menstrual products, including items such as ‘period pants’ which are instead considered an item of clothing and therefore not deemed essential.

When looking at period poverty more broadly, however, it is still those in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America that suffer the most. According to ActionAid, in Kenya “approximately 50% of school-age girls do not have access to sanitary products”. The problem is not only availability, but also accessibility to safe and hygienic products that won’t lead to other spiralling health conditions such as infection.  In Ethiopia, sadly this statistic rises; an estimated 75% of women are unable to access proper sanitary products. Many countries like Ethiopia deem menstruation as a taboo topic which results in many feeling ashamed or unable to express their struggles.

Put simply, period poverty is a subset of a broader scale of poverty, and therefore it is transcendent across nationalities and geographical barriers – hence why tackling it is imperative.

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To calculate how much money you may have spent in the UK on sanitary products before the lift of the VAT, follow this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42013239

Period poverty on a global scale

By Derry Salter

The UK first introduced VAT (Value Added Tax) on sanitary products in 1973 after it joined the European Economic Community. The standard rate of 10% peaked to a 17.5% charge in 1991. However, VAT for sanitary products has remained at a stable 5% for the last two decades due to the Labour government’s period campaign.

For many years, people have been actively protesting against the period tax. Kenya was the first country to abolish the tampon tax in 2004. However, other countries still have a long way to go. In the US alone, 34 states still apply the tampon tax to all sanitary items.

In 2015, activist Laura Croyton petitioned for a zero-rate on all sanitary products with over 320,000 signatures. Croyton’s petition saw the government rally for a change in EU law concerning the rate of VAT on sanitary products. However, the government did not succeed with their proposal, which only spurred on protesters.

In July 2017, Tesco became the first supermarket to pay tampon tax for its customers. Waitrose and Morrisons followed suit by reducing the price of sanitary products by 5%.

January 2021 marked a momentous month for period poverty activists, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak abolished the tampon tax. After leaving the EU, the UK is no longer bound by the EU’s VAT rules. This may be a significant gain for those who menstruate in the UK, but for those still in the EU, there is a long and expensive journey ahead.

According to ex-Chancellor George Osborne, all funds raised by tampons and towels in the UK were donated to women’s health and support charities. This came to a total of £15m between 2016-17. Despite making a significant difference for such charities, campaigners saw the cost of sanitary products as deeply unfair.

Periods and education

By Sophia Grace

When I asked my mother what her first thought was when she had her first period, she replied ‘shame’. This sort of reaction to a normal bodily function is still very prominent in modern society; we are led to believe that this natural occurrence is something we should hide. The misconception that we should be ashamed of our bodies is just one of many fallacies regarding the menstrual cycle. 

In secondary education, I feel as though periods were never talked about on a personal level. It was largely science-oriented, and although menstruation is undoubtedly biological, there is also a personal and mental element to the process. When I asked my 15 year old brother if he understood the process menstruation, he could recall the scientific elements entirely, yet had little to no knowledge of PMS symptoms or the emotional impacts of menstruation. Whilst we are taught about mood swings and cramps, the numerous other different symptoms like breast pain, bloating, migraines and mental fatigue are rarely mentioned.

After doing some research I discovered the following misconceptions:

  • ‘Period blood is ‘dirty’ blood’ – this couldn’t be further from the truth, period blood is less concentrated than the blood in the rest of our body.
  • ‘You can’t get pregnant on your period’ – again, this is simply not true; you can get pregnant at any stage during your cycle.
  • ‘You only lose 2 tablespoons of blood’ – this is one misconception I myself am guilty of believing. The NHS website states that you can lose up to 16 tablespoons with the average being 6-8 per period.

Alongside the many misconceptions of menstruation, there is also a huge stigma around being open about the menstrual cycle and fear surrounding ‘that time of the month’. This is likely due to the internalised shame that is felt by those who menstruate and the historical ideas surrounding periods. Whilst speaking to my mother about her first period, I asked her why she thought that the menstrual cycle wasn’t talked about when she was younger, to which she replied:

“People of my mother’s generation didn’t feel that they could talk about it… I think they just felt embarrassed to talk about something that was a kind of intimate bodily [function]. They felt that men didn’t really know about it and there was a stigma.”

The stigma and miseducation surrounding menstruation at the time, alongside the lack of sanitary products, meant that my mother had no idea how to handle her period when it first occurred. I asked her what she wished she had known when she had her first period, to which she replied:

“I wish I had known more about it… about the emotional changes that you would often experience every month, hormonal changes and that it affects your mood sometimes, I didn’t know anything about PMS.”

Although I believe the dialogue and education around menstruation has improved, young people are still incredibly misinformed. The best knowledge I have received about menstruation is from my own personal experiences and learning about it from others who also menstruate. There is still an undeniable stigma around the menstrual cycle and I think that it is often overlooked as such.

How can we help solve the period poverty crisis?

By Daisy Olyett

In 2019, New Zealand’s University of Otago found that nearly 100,000 people who menstruate in their nation’s poorest households may have missed school due to their lack of access to sanitary products. Many participants reported that when they lacked access to sanitary products, they were forced to use folded pieces of toilet paper; this substitute leaves users vulnerable to leaks within a short period of time, compared to the average tampon or pad which needs changing roughly every four hours. 

The social impact from missing school due to a period is detrimental to a student’s self esteem and puts them at an academic disadvantage to their peers. These issues can be made worse by the fact that schools in every country conduct different approaches to the availability of sanitary products on school grounds. 

By attending a mixed public school in the UK, I found that sanitary products were available to people who menstruated for free, but this was not made overtly apparent and many people, including myself, found it difficult to deal with unexpectedly “coming on” or leaking whilst at school – especially when many schools continue to pursue a strict policy on going to the toilet in lesson time.

Everyone’s experiences with periods may be different, but there still proceeds to be an underlying narrative in schools that discretion should be put above the needs of people who menstruate. Fortunately the actions of Jacinda Ardern will help to address the inequalities surrounding access to sanitary products and inspire countries around the world to enforce the same services in schools. In the meantime, we can support people who menstruate by keeping spare sanitary products on our person for both personal use and for the needs of others, whilst also teaching those around us that having a period is nothing to be ashamed of.