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Cities look to break period poverty taboo

Cities look to break period poverty taboo

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Public restrooms are stocked with free toilet paper, so why not menstrual products?

Long considered a major taboo, cities are starting to address the problem of period poverty and provide free sanitary pads and tampons on public spaces and schools.

Although it may seem like a small step, the question of what basic services and goods local authorities should provide to residents — and what can be considered an essential good — is a thorny one. No less when it concerns an overlooked social issue that many policymakers still find awkward to talk about.

“Period poverty wasn’t discussed — not in politics, not in society, not in schools, not in poverty organizations” because it was “a double taboo,” said Dorien Van Haute, deputy director of social service group Caritas Flanders, in Belgium.

“The first taboo is that we don’t speak about our period, it’s something private, and younger people in particular struggle to talk about it,” she said. “The second taboo is that if you don’t have money for certain things, you feel ashamed.” 

Because many politicians and policymakers still lack awareness of the issue, most efforts to remedy the problem come from activists and NGOs distributing menstrual products in low-income communities. More recently, they’ve been joined by a clutch of cities pledging to take action at a local level.

Scotland made headlines in 2020 when it became the first country in the world to require cities provide tampons and pads free of charge in public buildings. It has even gone so far as to launch an app residents can use to find the nearest pick-up spot.

In Gdańsk, Poland, residents can access free period products from so-called “pink boxes” outside municipal offices, social centers and schools throughout the city.

Aarschot, in the Belgian region of Flanders, became one of the first cities in the country to install vending machines that dispense sanitary pads free of charge in schools in 2021.

“Girls who cannot buy menstrual products often stay at home, which has an impact on their learning performance, while others sometimes forget to bring menstrual products,” said Aarschot’s mayor, Gwendolyn Rutten. “The mental threshold they need to cross to request sanitary napkins from the school administration is often too high: By placing a machine in the girls’ toilets, everyone has access to the products.”

The city has since expanded the initiative. This week, new vending machines were inaugurated in the city hall and sports center, and residents can also pick up menstrual products at the local library, cultural center and other public buildings.

Activists hope this will soon become the norm.

“Nobody chooses to have a period: There should be period products in every single public building,” said Verónica Martínez, founder and director of BruZelle, a Brussels-based NGO that distributes menstrual products to people who can’t afford them.

The Belgian city of Aarschot became one of the first ones in the country to install vending machines that dispense sanitary pads free of charge in schools and municipal buildings | Bram Deprins

“Cities should make them freely available in municipal offices, schools, places like train stations,” she said. “You should be able to pick them up on any street.” 

Unequal access

Pads and tampons may not seem like they would break the bank, but the need to stock up monthly can quickly put them out of reach for many people.

The Wallonian regional government estimates that people who need them spend between €10 and €12 a month, or up to €144 every year.

According to social service group Caritas, 12 percent of all women aged 12 to 25 living in the neighboring region of Flanders reported not having enough money to buy period products at least once in their lives. That figure is much higher among Flemish women living in poverty, 45 percent of whom reported having that issue.

“People affected by period poverty are often forced to choose between buying essential items like food or buying menstrual products,” said Martínez. “They sometimes have no access to a location where they can get changed safely, a toilet with a lock, soap to wash their hands afterward.” 

Martínez stressed that not changing a pad or tampon can lead to infection or even toxic shock. She added that not being able to maintain basic hygiene can also be a source of mental distress. “Period poverty isn’t just a women’s issue: It’s a public health issue,” she said.  

While some cities have made recent strides, activists and social workers say many are still reluctant to spend public money on addressing period poverty or don’t recognize it as an important social issue.

Because menstruation is “such a private matter and there’s so much shame surrounding periods and poverty,” many local and regional authorities are wary of addressing the issue or don’t consider they may have a role to play, according to Van Haute from Caritas.

Authorities often worry about unlikely challenges to setting up schemes to distribute free period projects, like the risk that people will steal from the free vending machines or vandalize them, said BruZelle’s Martínez.

“Even if 10 percent of people were abusing the service, it’s still worth having for the other 90 percent who need it,” she said. “We should think of free pads like free toilet paper, like any other essential product that we would expect to find everywhere.”

This story has been updated with comments from the mayor of Aarschot.

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