Sunday 24 March 2019

Catherine Martin: 'Let's break down the barriers that hide the problem of period poverty'

Women politicians are acting to end the inequality over issues that affect half the population, writes Catherine Martin

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Catherine Martin

Did you know that in Ireland 50pc of women between the ages of 12 and 19 struggle to afford sanitary products?

That's according to research conducted by Plan International Ireland last year. It's quite hard to digest the findings of this research that roughly half of young women in Ireland can't afford a very basic need. It seems like something we should all be talking about.

It might surprise you that the word "menstruation" appears only 27 times on the Oireachtas records. Something that affects roughly 50pc of the teenage and adult population has been mentioned fewer than 30 times in our national parliament since the foundation of the State.

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And when you delve into those Oireachtas records, you'll quickly find that periods are almost entirely spoken about in a context of fertility, rather than in terms of an individual's health and well-being.

But that's changing.

This week the Oireachtas Women's Caucus, a group of current and former female TDs and senators from across the political spectrum, will introduce a motion to the Dail on period poverty.

This is a significant moment in the history of our national parliament as it will be the first time a cross-party group of female members of Dail Eireann will unite in bringing forward a motion.

This motion will call for the provision of free sanitary products in all public buildings from schools and universities to direct provision centres, refuges, hospitals, and prisons as a way to tackle period poverty.

Period poverty is a real issue for women in Ireland and it is having a negative impact on their education, well-being and quality of life.

It is currently estimated that Irish women and girls spend an average of €132 per annum on tampons and sanitary towels. For women and girls who are homeless, in direct provision or in full-time education, this is a substantive cost, and many often resort to cheap, unsafe products or crude alternatives.

This is both an issue of equality and of dignity. The monthly burden of buying sanitary products falls on approximately half the population by virtue of their biology.

Last year Dublin City Council announced that it will provide free sanitary products in its buildings such as community centres, swimming pools and libraries, and The Homeless Period organisation now has 30 drop-off points for people to donate sanitary products to homeless women. Across the water, the Scottish government is taking action to fight period poverty.

It has recently become the first government in the world to pledge to provide free sanitary products to all pupils and students in its schools, colleges and universities.

But our Dail motion doesn't stop at providing free sanitary products. We are also calling for comprehensive and normalising education on periods in schools, for tighter regulation and quality checks of menstrual products, for Ireland to work at an EU-wide level to remove VAT on products, particularly healthy and environmentally friendly ones, and to prioritise the issue of menstrual equity in Irish Aid's work overseas.

Normalising periods and ensuring objective education is incredibly important.

The lack of conversation in the Oireachtas on menstruation mirrors a societal silence on the issue. Six out of ten young women surveyed by Plan International Ireland said that they feel shame and embarrassment about their period. Shame and embarrassment about something so ordinary and natural.

There are very real consequences of both the stigma surrounding and the cost of period products.

In the same survey it was found that 61pc of Irish girls have missed school because of their period. If 61pc of students said they had missed school because of some sort of virus it would be a national emergency. No student should have to miss school because of stigma or because they can't afford sanitary products. Education is a basic human right and we must do everything we can to ensure that right isn't jeopardised.

We need to remove the taboo from discussing menstruation. No woman should ever feel burdened with unnecessary stress, embarrassment or anxiety every month because of their gender or financial circumstances.

Opening up the conversation on periods, as well as providing free and safe sanitary products, will help to bring greater dignity and well-being to women and girls. When an issue is shrouded in stigma, when people don't feel able to talk openly about their concerns, we end up with people quietly suffering.

Next week our parliament will show the leadership it needs to demonstrate on period poverty by debating this motion, by having this conversation, by demanding change.

I am proud that the Women's Caucus is working to shed light on this issue by bringing forward this motion on Wednesday.

By working together and casting aside party politics we have been able to bring forward something that can have a real positive impact for many women and girls in this country.

This week's Dail motion is just the beginning for the Oireachtas Women's Caucus. We intend to bring forward further legislation in the future to tackle effectively a diversified range of women's issues which need attention.

The barriers to equality, both in Ireland and abroad, are many and complex. Together as women we are an effective force for positive change.

Catherine Martin is the Green Party's deputy leader and TD for Dublin Rathdown. She is the founder and chair of the Oireachtas Women's Caucus

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