Some governments provide free products, others are cutting taxes. Activists urge them to do more

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The Economist explains

FOR THE vast majority of menstruating women in rich countries, tampons and other feminine-hygiene products are both affordable and, on the whole, adequate. But some still end up soaking up their blood with poor substitutes such as newspapers, toilet roll or rags, all of which methods may lead to infection. This aspect of destitution, known as period poverty, has been the subject of a wave of activism in recent years.

A dearth of data makes it difficult to grasp the scale of the problem in the West. Nevertheless, research shows that poor menstrual hygiene is not limited to poor countries. Two points stand out.

First, some women and girls struggle to pay for pads and tampons. According to a study in 2019 of 58 girls at a secondary school predominantly attended by poorer students in St Louis, Missouri, nearly half had been unable to afford period products when they needed them at least once during the previous year. Almost two-thirds had used products provided by their school. Nearly two-thirds of low-income women surveyed in the same city in a study the previous year reported being unable to purchase pads and tampons because they were out of pocket. Several admitted to stealing pads or tampons out of desperation. If a woman is worried about leakage or nasty smells, she is less likely to turn up at work or concentrate at school. Women who have lost income or jobs as a result of the pandemic may find the expense of sanitary products even harder to bear.

Second, there is an enduring awkwardness when it comes to speaking about periods, and menstrual conditions in general. Nearly half of girls in Britain felt embarrassed by their monthly cycle, according to an online survey of 1,000 girls conducted in 2017 by Plan International UK, a children’s charity. This figure may not be representative (opt-in polls will probably be ignored by those who are not interested in the subject or unwilling to talk about it), but it indicates that a sense of shame about periods lingers.

Boosting education about menstruation and medical conditions related to it, such as endometriosis, would help. England made learning about menstruation, hygiene and what counts as a healthy period compulsory for all students in September last year. In November Scotland became the first country in the world to offer free pads and tampons to all women. They will be provided in public buildings, schools and universities. The law also envisages a voucher-style scheme that would enable women to pick up period products at no cost, though details of how this will work are yet to be decided.

Other governments may balk at the cost of implementing a programme similar to Scotland’s, particularly because most women have no trouble buying a box of tampons costing £2.20 ($2.98) or so on in the UK. A cheaper alternative, chosen by several countries and some American states, is to supply menstrual products to schools and hospitals. These are places where people are more likely to be caught short. This solution helps girls to manage puberty and avoids spending money on women who are happy to buy their own sanitary items. These policies also win rare bipartisan support in America, notes Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, an activist and a fellow at the Brennan Centre for Justice, a non-partisan think-tank.

What about the “tampon tax”, the sales tax levied on sanitary products? Britain abolished value-added tax on such goods from January 1st. A handful of American states and 15 countries, from Kenya to Nicaragua, have also scrapped taxes on sanitary wares. Ms Weiss-Wolf argues that America’s Internal Revenue Service should change the classification of menstrual items from general health products to medical goods (as the Food and Drug Administration does). This would allow Americans on federal health reimbursement programmes to reclaim the cost of tampons and pads against tax. This decision could also prompt individual states to think about their own sanitary sales tax.

Ensuring that all women have a hygienic and dignified period requires thinking about public-health and gender issues more broadly. Female-friendly toilets and menstrual education need to be part of the package too, says Marni Sommer of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The needs of menstruating trans and non-binary people, who may feel uncomfortable using single-sex toilets, raises further questions. Increasingly, lawmakers are beginning to agree with activists; periods should not stop a woman from going about her daily life.

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