Stop menstruation-related embarrassment

On 7 June, a public debate on menstrual poverty will be held in the Polish Senate. Last year, the European Parliament called on EU countries to provide free hygiene products to everyone who needs them. Scotland has introduced legislative solutions in this regard.

‘We will present a diagnosis of the problem and solutions from other countries. It cannot be ruled out that the discussion may conclude with a legislation initiative, originated perhaps by the Senate or by the community, the citizens’, announced Civic Coalition deputy Marzena Okła-Drewnowicz, who is deputy head of the Parliamentary Committee on Social Policy and the Family and has organised the debate.

The Scottish law, which came into effect at the beginning of 2021, is very broad. It obliges local authorities to provide the local communities with access to free sanitary pads and tampons. In practice, they are distributed at schools, universities and public places. The estimated annual cost is £24 million. The law sets forth the ground rules that access is to be universal, with no restrictions based on age, gender, income, and no registration systems or verification of who is using the free hygiene products. ‘Providing access for everyone will prevent women, girls and trans people from being financially penalised for menstruating. This solves the problem of menstrual poverty, while minimising potential stigma that might affect those receiving free products’, read the substantiation for the law.

Its passing was preceded by a two-year pilot programme to distribute free sanitary pads and tampons at Scottish schools and universities. The solution also works in the rest of the UK, as well as in other countries such as France and Spain. Schools clearly demonstrate not only the scale of menstrual poverty (e.g., in a study by Young Scot, a Scottish youth support organisation, one in four female students admitted that they could not afford menstrual products), but also its effects: menstrual poverty and exclusion cause regular absences from school, which in turn affects the educational opportunities of girls.

In Poland, the problem was addressed from the bottom up by Okresowa Koalicja [Period Coalition], an association of organisations that deal with the topic of menstruation. The Pink Box, introduced by the Coalition, encourages schools to install containers with free sanitary pads and tampons. Currently, there are 5,000 pink boxes in place, mostly maintained with money from NGOs and sometimes from local governments. The Ministry of Education inquired by Civic Coalition Senator Barbara Borys-Damięcka about its support for the initiative, replied that it was an autonomous decision of individuals schools.

Marzena Okła-Drewnowicz emphasised that the campaign has been received well, so the resulting initiative might focus first on schools. ‘Young people can clearly articulate their views and advocate for what is important to them. A sanitary pad or tampon should be the norm, just like soap and toilet paper’, she added.

The needs are probably greater than the current reach of the pink boxes. There are about 20,000 primary and secondary schools, but the scale of menstrual poverty has not been studied. The data is not collected by the Ministry in charge of social affairs (currently it is the Ministry of Family), as admitted by Deputy Minister Stanisław Szwed in his response in April 2021 to a parliamentary inquiry. ‘The Ministry of Family and Social Policy does not collect statistics on the problem of “menstrual poverty.” In addition, the very term of “menstrual poverty” has not yet been clearly defined in commonly applicable documents’, said his response.

Yet, such an attempt was made by the European Parliament in its June 2021 resolution (on sexual and reproductive health and rights). The EP estimated that one in ten women in Europe struggles to gain access to hygiene products during menstruation. The EP pointed out the consequences of menstrual poverty: absences from school, absences from work, and health risks. Menstrual poverty was also linked to the taboo and shame surrounding menstruation. Insufficient knowledge (this results from a lack of reliable education, among others) not only leads to reluctance to deal with the topic of menstrual poverty, but also negatively affects health, including disregard for menstrual pain, and can delay the diagnosis of endometriosis, which is one of the main causes of infertility.

‘Menstruation in the 21st century should never cause embarrassment’, emphasised Marzena Okła-Drewnowicz. ‘Even if we do not introduce a comprehensive legal solution now, the mere appearance of the initiative will increase awareness of the problem. Many people are confronted with it, but in the absence of proper terms, they do not respond to it’.

In the government’s National Action Programme for Equal Treatment for the years 2022–2030 (the latest available version is a draft dated 8 November 2021), the problem of menstrual poverty is referred to only once. ‘Another worrying aspect of poverty is its feminisation, namely the higher incidence of poverty among women than men. This also means a higher statistical probability that women and girls will experience poverty in their life, and a specific variety of poverty that affects only or mainly women. Examples include the poverty of single mothers or menstrual poverty, resulting in the unavailability of hygiene products for some women and girls. Also, access to women’s reproductive health is limited by poverty’, the document reads. AZ