A Bloody Fight: Why fighting against menstruation stigma is still important

By Isobel Warner

NOTE: This article discusses the dangerous effects of menstruation stigma and the very real problems of period poverty. We recognise that these problems do not solely affect cis-gendered women, as not all menstruators are women. The research and statistics used in this article are wrongly gendered; however, we have stated who was involved in the surveys for transparency.

Even in 2020, menstruation is one of the biggest stigmas.

Many of us have been on the receiving end of this taboo at some point, whether that’s trying to sneak a tampon up your sleeve whilst going to the loo, or frantically hiding a leaking disaster when out in public. Even telling your employer that you are ill with period pains can be a nerve racking experience.

The stigma and lack of open communication surrounding menstruation creates an atmosphere of mystery and invisibility around periods. The veil placed over periods and the stigma surrounding the conversation of menstruation creates some far-reaching and highly discriminative consequences; these can range from misdiagnosis of menstrual diseases, to a fundamental lack of awareness of period hygiene and danger of infection and, ultimately, period poverty. 

Period poverty: What is it and why is it a problem?

One of the most serious consequences of the stigma surrounding menstruation is that of period poverty. International women’s rights charity, Action Aid, defines period poverty as “a global issue affecting women and girls who don’t have access to safe, hygienic sanitary products, and/or who are unable to manage their periods with dignity”. Building on this, period poverty can affect people who menstruate from all over the world, and can stem from a range of factors. These can range from different cultural and societal rules surrounding periods, to insufficient affordable period products and prolonged poverty. 

This problem of period poverty is a problem which is intensified in countries where the culture is extremely patriarchal. Indeed, period poverty can only begin to be addressed and rectified when menstruators’ rights are recognised and protected; an example of this is Action Aid’s work against female genital mutilation in Ethiopia and Kenya. However, due to the progression in equal rights in countries such as the UK and US, there is an illusion that our society is innocent to the problem of period poverty. 

In fact, the statistics surrounding period poverty in the UK are extremely damning, and unfortunately speak for themselves. A 2017 survey conducted by Plan International UK shows that, of girls and young women between the ages 14-21, 10% have been completely unable to afford sanitary products, 15% have struggled to afford sanitary products and 12% have been forced to improvise sanitary products in lieu of safe and hygienic products. Moreover, 49% have missed an entire day of school because of their period, and 48% are embarrassed about getting their periods

Furthermore, a more recent survey by Ginger Comms, the Bloody Big Brunch and Hey Girls has shown that the percentage of girls and women being completely unable to afford menstrual products has risen to 27%. These statistics demonstrate that the UK still very much has a problem, not only with period poverty but with the stigma surrounding menstruation as well.

Progress in reducing menstruation stigma

In reaction to these horrendous statistics, there has been a concerted effort made in the last decade or so to fight issues such as period poverty. The beginning of the effects of this fight can be seen, one example being the abolition of the “tampon tax”. This means that various sanitary items (including tampons) will no longer be regarded as a “non-essential, luxury item” and the added VAT will be removed from the cost. Another example is the availability of free period products in schools in England, Scotland and Wales for anyone who needs them. 

Furthermore, there has been a clear increase in the conversation around periods in the mainstream media as an attempt to “normalise” periods and reduce the stigma, such as Pantone labelling their new shade of red paint “Period”. Not only this, but there has been an increase in popularity of menstrual cups in the last decade, due to their reduction in waste and more affordable nature. Faye Saulsbury wrote a fabulous article for Candid Orange, where she lays out the great reasons for using menstrual cups, highlighting their potential to reduce the stigma surrounding menstruation.

Building on this, there has been an influx in businesses and social enterprises that champion sustainability and removing period stigma. These companies simultaneously create and sell biodegradable and environmentally-friendly period products, whilst also fighting against the stigma surrounding menstruation and campaigning for laws against period poverty. Some examples of these are the fabulous “Ohne”, “Dame” and “Sanitree”. The visible presence of a conversation around menstruation is essential to breaking the taboo, and demystifying periods as a subject matter. 

Fighting the stigma

However, the work fighting against the stigma of menstruation is not over, and nor is the fight against period poverty. For example, even among the above mentioned and celebrated progress against the stigma, it is not all entirely perfect: only 40% of eligible schools in England have actually signed up to the government scheme of free period products mentioned above, and the reaction to Pantone’s new shade has been mixed, with some feeling that the bright red colour continues to romanticise and mystify period blood. 

Not only this, but recently there has been controversy surrounding the Welsh government’s ban on selling “non-essential” items, where Tesco’s then mistakenly stopped selling sanitary products. Thankfully, Tesco has done a U-turn and stated that they wrongly interpreted the Welsh laws, but the fact that we are still having to debate the essential status of period products is baffling. This fundamental lack of understanding and miseducation surrounding menstruation only fosters and aids this environment of prejudice, stigma and misinformation. This in turn leads to serious problems such as period poverty, kids missing school, and essentially embarrassment of a perfectly natural process. As such, we need to be louder in the conversation around periods, because even in 21st century Britain, the work isn’t done yet.