‘Period poverty’ refers to the situation in which one lacks access to proper menstrual products and hygiene facilities. Without these necessary items, menstruators are unable to participate in school, work, or other aspects of life, leading to feelings of isolation and shame.
Text & image: Sophie Widrig
The social stigma associated with menstruation is perpetuated through relentless cultural cues established via media, education, advertisements, and so on. These discourses have real effects on menstruators’ health and well-being. Most menstruators have their period 500 times throughout their life, accumulating to almost 10 whole years. These 10 years are something to be celebrated and supported, not taxed and shamed. Period poverty encompasses a double taboo: one that applies to all menstruators, as well as class-based stigmatization. The VUB is contributing to the perpetuation of this stigmatization by not providing sanitary products in campus restrooms.
VAT tax refers to the value-added tax that begins at a standard rate, but is adjusted based on the necessity of an item. For example, the average tax on fruits and vegetables is around 4%. Within some EU member states, consumers are forced to pay a tax of 22% on menstrual products, which is equivalent to that of luxury goods. The VAT tax is a numerical measurement of what a state deems important for its citizens. It is a statement that hierarchically ranks items based on their declared necessity, and therefore the consumers of those products as well. Categorizing sanitary products as a luxury, and thus as unnecessary and unimportant, contributes to the antiquated understanding of menstruation as a social, psychical, and mental burden, though now making it a financial burden as well. Eliminating the VAT tax not only allows for lower-income menstruators to have access to necessary hygiene products, but also contributes to eliminating the stigmatization of menstruation.
Belgium’s recent reduction of VAT on sanitary products from 21% to 6% has been accompanied by further action toward reducing period poverty such as providing free sanitary products for female prisoners who previously had to pay a higher price than that on the market. In Spain, prior to 2022, menstruation products were also held at a tax standard equivalent to that of luxury items, while Viagra was simultaneously being regarded as an essential item and taxed at 4%. Just this year, the Spanish government has reduced the VAT on menstrual products to that of other essential items. One by one, governments are beginning to reduce or drop the tax on these necessary products – though Scotland is spearheading this movement. In 2020, a bill approved by the Scottish parliament made sanitary products free in all pharmacies and public institutions such as schools and clubs. These actions are helping to lift the double stigmatization that accompanies period poverty; firstly the internalized shame of menstruating that has been imposed by heteronormative gender stereotypes and secondly classist bias and discrimination.
Categorizing sanitary products as a luxury contributes to the antiquated understanding of menstruation as a social, psychical, and mental burden, now making it a financial burden as well
To further illustrate the classist discrimination inherent within period poverty, a survey by Caritas Vlaanderen presented in The Brussels Times showed that 12% of menstruators were unable to financially acquire necessary hygiene products, which increases to 45% when surveying those who are in a state of poverty. This results in less education and participation in essential activities and further psychological effects from the added stress and isolation. Therefore, the Belgian federal government committed to donating 200,000 euros to be split equally between two women’s organizations to combat period poverty in 2020. These organizations, ‘Vrouwenraad’ and ‘Conseil Des Femmes Francophone’, are working to make hygiene products easily accessible in cities such as Aarschot (a city in the province of Flemish-Brabant, ed. note) where products are now available in all public restrooms and municipal buildings.
Experiment on menstruation and discrimination
To demonstrate the social stigma that surrounds menstruation, a study titled “Feminine Protection”: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes towards Women, found staggering evidence that reminders of a menstrual status lead to increased objectification and negativity. Authors claim that menstruation and pregnancy constantly connect women with nature, which has been appropriated into the caregiver model and the idea of female inferiority in opposition to men. To explain more specifically the ways in which the stigmatization of menstruation has been internalized, researchers have conducted experiments in which a test subject dropped a tampon in a controlled environment and observed the following behavior: other participants perceived her as less likable and physically distanced themselves whilst waiting for further instructions. The results of this study are a reminder of the real effects of the social stigma that surrounds menstruation. They assert that the time of menstruation has imposed many restrictions and taboos across time and space and will continue to do so, so long as our social understanding around menstruation remains objectifying.
Objectification, gender bias, and intersectional feminism
Not having proper access to necessary products elicits feelings of shame and distress that have psychological, social, and health consequences. The stigmatization of menstruation has nothing to do with the process itself, but with those who are experiencing this process. Menstruation has been an active tool for subordination through lack of support and recognition. The concealment of one’s cycle stems from a socially imposed understanding of menstruation as a private burden. The period taboo is perpetuated through the extensive vocabulary that has been created to avoid any mention of menstruation. Whether it’s the announcement that “aunt flow is in town” or you’re riding “the crimson tide”, the stigmatized status of menstruation is particularly present in its absence. An extensive repertoire of euphemisms along with the staggering silence surrounding menstruation speak loudest to its condemnation and the “othering” of all those associated.
The period taboo is perpetuated through the extensive vocabulary that has been created to avoid any mention of menstruation
The heteronormative understanding of menstruation also provides obstacles to intersectional feminism. Often associated with the antiquated understanding of a feminine woman, this excludes others who menstruate. Further difficulties arise with the lack of trash cans and products provided in men’s restrooms as well. This disregard only furthers the obsolete narrative supplied in the traditional understanding of menstruation. Gender-neutral toilets, with products for all, is essential in reconstructing menstruation beyond classist and heteronormative gender biases.
Gloria Steinem, a name that holds much power, as did she. Through influential writing, Steinem disrupted normative discourses and lit fires beneath the bellies of suppressed groups around the world. In her subversive and groundbreaking essay entitled If Men Could Menstruate, Steinem entices readers to imagine a world in which (cisgendered) men were the menstruators. She asserts that the narrative around menstruation would shift towards being a masculine event that is openly boasted about. She illustrates events that would take place in celebration of one’s first menses, as proof of manhood. That it would be an argument used by institutions to exclude women as without the pain and experience of bleeding, they would not be seen as worthy to take part in the military and politics. Steinem’s essay illustrates how the stigmatization surrounding menstruation is a social phenomena characterized by obsolete gender normative biases.
Period poverty is detrimental to the health and well-being of those who are limited in their access to necessary products. This is a call to action for the VUB to provide sanitary products in all of the restrooms in an effort to combat period poverty and its underlying heteronormative and classist discourse. Providing the necessary hygiene products is an act of support and recognition for the half of the population that relies on these items to sustain their daily life.
This is a call to action for the VUB to provide sanitary products in all of the restrooms in an effort to combat period poverty
Roberts, T.-A., Goldenberg, J. L., Power, C., & Pyszczynski, T. (2002). “Feminine Protection”: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes Towards Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26(2), 131–139. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-6402.00051
Steinem, G. (1987). If Men Could Menstruate. Ms. magazine WOMEN’S REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH 2019, VOL. 6, NO. 3, 151–152. https://doi.org/10.1080/23293691.2019.1619050