In a packed bar in Amsterdam, a young woman goes up to the counter. She says something inaudible to the bartender. Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” drown out her request. “Pad or tampon?”, he replies plainly. A drawer of free sanitary products is revealed underneath the spirits and various beers on tap. The exchange is of course normal and conversational, and yet to the Irish female foreigner it is a far cry from the society that we have grown up in, where tampons are smuggled under jumper sleeves for fear of judgement from work colleagues.
It is often said that sex didn’t happen in Ireland until the Late Late Show. In May Gay Byrne produced a condom on the live show, before conducting an educational tutorial. Despite initial criticism from outraged viewers, this event brought contraception into normal conversation. It removed the taboo on the subject and the sense of shame that was often associated with family planning. No such event, has ever taken place for tampons or period products in general.
A Tampax ad that took the structure of a chat show conversation, urging viewers was banned in 2020. This ban further conveys the taboo that still exists around the discussion of periods and the lack of education that exists, even among grown women. While many cultures celebrate menstruation, in Western society it is still an unspoken event that takes place monthly.
A survey conducted by Plan International Ireland included 1,100 girls and young women. The women aged between 12 and 19 about stigma around periods as well as the affordability of period products.
This survey shows the effects of a society where menstruation and embarrassment too often go hand in hand. 61% of girls reported feeling too embarrassed to discuss their periods with others. 15% of the young women, said they did not know what was happening when they had their period for the first time. Half of all those interviewed, said that they did not find their schools helpful when it came to providing information about periods.
Plan International CEO, Paul O’Brien spoke to Oxygen.ie about the need for more education for young girls and a move to remove the stigma around the topic of periods. “When we see the results of our survey, we see how the Tampax ad was potentially bridging a gap in knowledge for girls who may otherwise be unsure of how to use tampons. The fact that it was banned showed that we are still some wat off from being able to discuss periods openly and without embarrassment.”
This lack of information can often lead to rumours filling in the gaps. Plan International Ireland, aim to give young girls the information they need, so that the information shared is based on facts and not fears. “If teenagers aren’t armed with the right information about periods and period management, then misinformation will be rife”, explained O’ Brien. “The reality is that girls are most comfortable talking to each other about their periods and learning how to manage them from their peers- this makes it so important that they have the correct information to share with each other.”
According to Plan International, 1 out of every 13 girls surveyed believed that you could lose your virginity by wearing a tampon.
Education dispels the sense of shame that is too often associated with a natural monthly event that affects half of the world’s population. “Education is critical; because it’s only by learning and talking about periods that we can smash the idea that they’re a source of shame to be dealt with in secret rather than a perfectly normal bodily process. When a vacuum is created and we don’t talk about periods, the vacuum is so easily filled with myths and misinformation. We also must ensure we engage men and boys on periods and educate them about the realities of menstruation.” Plan International has worked alongside the government in Uganda to provide education on periods for both female and male classmates. The classmates work together to make reusable pads, and educational workshop that also helps to eliminate stigma and shame.
Period poverty is a serious barrier to education, a barrier that exists far closer to home than many think. A Tesco in Wales came under intense scrutiny when period products were sealed off and deemed as discretionary items during lockdown. Not having these products can mean missing a week of school, not being able to partake in hobbies, missing time at work etc.
“The overwhelming majority of respondents to our survey in Ireland reported that their periods had an impact on their education in some way or another, 61% had missed school, while almost 90% had found it more difficult to pay attention”, explains O’Brien. Students miss specific classes, for example P.E. Which is no surprise, “Imagine sitting in class having to use a rolled up tissue or sock to manage your period? How could you possibly concentrate in that scenario?”
In many countries, period products are seen as something that should be provided by schools, workplaces and university campuses. While many schools in Ireland provide free sanitary products, it is usually a decision made by an individual school or principal. It is not a government initiative, even though many young girls, may get their period for the first time in a classroom environment. For university students, the price of pads can often also be too high. Half of respondents to the survey had reported to have struggled to pay for period products. Of course women in the Direct provision system in refuge settings and who are homeless, often suffer the most.
Lucy Mythen was an Erasmus student in Université Rennes 2 France. Mythen, originally from Cork was surprised at the facilities provided on campus for those that get periods. Each accommodation building had a dispenser full of free tampons and pads for all that needed them. Workshops on mooncups and reusable pads also took place, where free products were provided. “They were always stocked up which was nice! People didn’t waste them. I was really surprised to see it because there’s nothing like that in Cork universities as far as I’m aware. The feminist society in UCC does amazing work but unfortunately the discussions they start are still sort of limited to the society itself”, finished Mythen.
Period poverty and misinformation are issues that transcend international borders, and coronavirus restrictions have only made matters worse. On any given day 800 million people from all different backgrounds are on their period. Government restrictions to slow the spread of the virus resulted in shortages in the supplies of period products. Supply chains were disrupted and people who could afford products began to stockpile them. Covid-19 also led to a “diversion of water, hygiene and sanitation facilities or restricted access to them.” The virus only further exacerbated issues that have existed for decades, and showed us the need for improvement within society.
Justine Fontan is the director of Eco Dreams International Ltd, a company that provides period products that are more sustainable for the environment. Fontan started making reusable pads for various charities, yet didn’t realise how common the issue of period poverty is in the UK. “I had been sewing reusable pads to send out to various charities since I was 16 and despite working with many different charities and doing it for several charities and doing it for several years- it wasn’t even on our radar that it could be such a big problem so close to home. I think the Plan International report really shined a light on the situation in the UK and that we needed to shift our charitable efforts closer to home”, Fontan told Oxygen.ie.
Fontan often experiences the stigma that surrounds periods, in her line of work. Friends ask her when she is going to move on to another project. She hopes that more teachers, health professionals and parents start to discuss the different options for those that have periods. Fontan’s business centres around providing her customers with the ability to find the product that suits them the best. Social media steps in where more traditional outlets fail. “I think social media has helped a lot in raising awareness of alternative menstrual products like menstrual cups and reusable pads. Particularly with the younger generations which tend to be eco-minded.” While the Tampax ad was deemed “provocative” and unsuitable for children, it was a step in the right direction for a society where misinformation and stigma are still commonplace.