Period Poverty: Changing the Conversation, One Cycle at a Time

Period poverty is still often a taboo subject, even while affecting more than one million Australians. But the conversation is changing, and that makes bloody good sense.

As a teenager, Kim from Westlake, Brisbane, was a keen netballer. But she sometimes had to skip games when she had her period.

“I was raised by a single mother who did the best she could,” Kim says. “But she had two girls and herself, and there were times when she couldn’t afford [period products]… There were times when we just had to stay home – we couldn’t play.”

Kim is almost 50 now and the stress of her menstrual cycle has continued to affect her daily life, and even the direction and shape of her life, in profound ways. After leaving home, then raising children and teenage daughters – period worries have remained a constant. Sanitary products are just too expensive.

When her own first child was little, she struggled to make ends meet. As a single mother herself, she says, sanitary items were “just not something that was on the shopping list”. Like many people in her situation, she improvised cheaper sanitary protection. “It was toilet paper or cotton wool and [face]washers folded up in my pants.”

At 25, she decided to get contraceptive injections to prevent ovulation and monthly periods. For years, she went to the doctor every three months to get her injections, but not really for contraceptive reasons.

“I knew that with the injection I wouldn’t have to buy sanitary items. I knew that [the injection] could eliminate that. I could take the embarrassment away and I could guarantee that I could go to work.”

There’s a 10-year age difference between Kim’s two children. “I sacrificed having kids in [the years] between,” she says.

When Kim talks about periods, and the accompanying burdens and expenses, she uses the words “embarrassment” and “shame” a lot. She talks of how she’s struggled to overcome those feelings over the years. And she talks about “sacrifice” and “missing out” a lot, too.

How many sports matches and how many education, work or social opportunities are people missing out on over the course of a lifetime because of their periods? And why is this happening when periods are a normal and natural fact of life for so many of us?

Fortunately, the silence and the stigma around menstruation are starting to lift. In recent years our conversations, and our understanding, about menstruation – a natural biological process affecting more than half the world’s population – have become more sophisticated, more nuanced and more candid. There’s more awareness now of the environmental impact of pads and tampons and more innovation, and range, in available menstrual products.

There’s an improved understanding now, too, that it’s not only girls and women who menstruate. Transgender men and non-binary people may also have periods. And, thanks to people like Kim, as well as a younger generation of activists, there’s an improved understanding of how lack of access to expensive sanitary products is a form of discrimination and disadvantage.

In January, Adelaide woman Isobel Marshall was named 2021 Young Australian of the Year in recognition of her social enterprise, TABOO, which works to fight period poverty overseas and period stigma here in Australia.

Proceeds from Marshall’s enterprise go to One Girl, a charity that works for education and equality for girls and women in Sierra Leone and Uganda. Menstruation disadvantage is also a major focus for Plan International, a humanitarian charity organisation focused on gender equality and children’s rights, working in 77 countries across the world. Plan estimates that around 500 million people worldwide lack the means to manage their periods.

It’s difficult to measure the extent of the problem here in Australia. Period poverty is estimated to affect as many as one million Australians, but it’s an under-researched area, with not a lot of local data. It’s possible to get a picture of the problem, however, through small local studies and larger studies in comparable countries.

A 2017 Plan International study in the UK found one in 10 girls have been unable to afford sanitary products. A 2019 Saint Louis University survey of 183 women living in low-income communities found that 46 per cent of respondents could not afford to buy both food and period products during the past year, while 36 per cent missed one or two days of work each month. An Australian survey of 1000 people commissioned by Libra in 2019 found that 67 per cent of teenage girls would rather fail a subject at school than have their class know that they had their period. A 2018 report by The University of Queensland and Water Aid Australia found many students in remote First Nations communities are not attending school for several days each month during menstruation.

The demand for donated sanitary products for vulnerable people in Australia is another indication of the extent of the problem. Share the Dignity, a national charity that donates sanitary products to people who are homeless or living in poverty, was unable to meet demand for its donated packs last year. The national organisation works with local and grassroots charities, mostly women’s groups and family violence services, to distribute their packs. For their November drive in 2020, Share the Dignity was able to distribute an impressive 93,981 packs to people in need, but they were still 46,509 packs short of demand.

It’s estimated that period paraphernalia costs upwards of $19,000 across a lifetime in Australia. COVID-19 has exacerbated problems with expense and access. Many have noted the empty shelf space in the sanitary-item section of supermarkets, especially for the cheaper homebrand products, during the various panic-buying episodes.

A Plan International study, released with help from The Body Shop Australia, surveyed 661 people who menstruate in Australia. A worrying 51 per cent of those surveyed reported period products had become harder to access during the pandemic.

Progress on this issue is slow – but it’s happening. In 2018, after an 18-year campaign from feminist groups, the Commonwealth Government agreed to make sanitary products GST exempt, in line with other products like condoms, Viagra and sunscreen. In the past year, Victorian and South Australian state governments have followed the example of the New Zealand Government to pass laws making sanitary products freely available in public schools.

In a world first last year, Scottish Parliament voted to make sanitary products freely available at many public places, including community centres, pharmacies and youth clubs. There’s even a period emoji now for smartphone users, a red drop of blood, thanks to a campaign by Plan International.

The emoji is part of efforts to blow open conversations about menstruation. Period poverty and period stigma are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin. The shame and stigma exacerbate the stress of period poverty. And perhaps period poverty would not be so widespread, and so normalised, if not for the entrenched silence.

Research and charitable activity are increasingly focused on the emotional burden of shame around periods, and working hard to combat it.

Freeing young people and future generations from period anxiety is something that’s close to Kim’s heart. She vividly remembers the morning her youngest daughter got her first period.

“It was a trigger for me,” she says. “It was in the morning, we were getting ready for school, about 7 o’clock, and she said, ‘Guess what, I got my period!’ And instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, you’ve become a woman’. I just went, ‘Oh my God, no no no no no. I’ll be back soon.’ And I flew to the chemist and literally filled up two baskets.”

Kim laughs, telling the story of bumping into friends at the chemist, who found her carrying mountains of sanitary products. But the reasons for her drastic actions were serious.

“I never want [my daughter] not to have an option. Unfortunately, I haven’t always had options and when you don’t have any money and you worry about bleeding onto your underwear and the embarrassment and shame of that… I want to take all that away.”

By Sophie Quick.

Sophie Quick is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.

First published in Edition #631.