Menstruation legislation: Can the Law Change Harmful Attitudes towards Periods?
An area that has seen rapid change and development recently is attitudes towards menstruation and menstrual health. Not very long ago, periods were a hushed topic, consisting of secretive talks between mothers and daughters, and hiding tampons and pads in special purses in school bags. Experiencing debilitating cramps were “nothing out of the ordinary”, there was an entire thesaurus of synonyms for menstruation (the curse, aunt flow, shark week…) and so, inevitably, a confusing cloud of disgust descended whenever it was our “time of the month”. However, some women count themselves to be one of the lucky ones. 1 in 10 girls in the UK don’t go to school when they’re on their period because they can’t afford sanitary products. Around the world, certain cultures view those menstruating as impure, unclean, and even bad luck. This leads to a lack of sanitation and of awareness, which not only entrenches a deep sense of shame, but can also be extremely dangerous.
The Law’s Impact on Period Poverty
Over the last few years, there has been a cultural shift in how many of us discuss menstruation and in some countries the law has stepped in to keep up with these changing attitudes towards menstrual health. Last year, Scotland became the first country in the world to protect the right to free sanitary products in law. Since 2017, the Scottish Government has invested more than £27 million to fund access to sanitary products in a range of public settings and in 2022, the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 finally came into force. This is a considerable milestone, one that “is fundamental to equality and dignity, and removes the financial barriers to accessing [sanitary products]”, according to Social Justice Secretary Shona Robison.Ultimately, this Act proves what we should already know: that access to sanitary products is a human right, not a luxury.
Scotland’s example is invaluable. They have been followed closely by the Northern Irish Assembly who passed a Bill in March 2022 for similar legislation and in 2021, New Zealand rolled out free sanitary products in all schools. It is commonly misconceived that period poverty only affects certain countries and communities where poor sanitation is already rife. However, in 2019, a survey of 1,000 girls in the UK found that more students were missing school because of a period than flu or vacation. With this outward legislative acceptance in the Period Products Act comes the tackling of the taboos surrounding menstruation on a social level, in turn facilitating real change. The ultimate purpose of this law is to protect a fundamental human right whilst removing societal stigma. However, there is still a long way to go, both in the UK and globally.
Furthermore, people are not just missing school because they are unable to afford sanitary products. Many suffer from extreme pain during their periods, which is often not taken seriously by workplaces, medical professionals, or schools. Conditions such as Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis are under-researched, often misdiagnosed and sometimes not diagnosed at all. An estimated 1.5 million women suffer from endometriosis in the UK, with the average diagnosis time taking an unacceptable 8 years due to a lack of awareness. To provide a personal, anecdotal example, my own endometriosis diagnosis took two years, four doctors and still there is no concrete cure. However, endometriosis within the workplace is now being debated in the UK Parliament, an extremely positive sign that menstrual health and issues are no longer being treated as “women’s problems” that need not be discussed. The law is vital in implementing these changing attitudes towards menstrual health, normalising discussions and eradicating harmful ignorance.
Menstruation and Gender Justice
There therefore exists an inextricable link between menstruation and gender injustice around the world. Whilst we can see examples in missing vital education and work, there is also a more sinister side. In rural Nepal, for example, there is a cultural practice called Chhaupadi, which teaches that women bring bad luck to their families and community when on their period. As such, in much of western Nepal and India, women and girls (as soon as they start menstruating) are not allowed to cook or use certain utensils, touch others and in many stricter communities, they must sleep outside in a separate hut from the rest of the household when on their period. Not only is this emotionally damaging to the women and girls who undergo this shameful ritual, but dangerous too. These tiny, ramshackle huts called chhau goths are far from their homes and often have poor sanitation and ventilation. The statistics are far worse than those in the UK as menstruating girls are not allowed to attend school, meaning that one in four girls in Nepal miss school during menstruation.Heartbreakingly, whilst these huts leave the women and girls vulnerable to the elements and animals, they are also in danger of sexual abuse. Exact numbers are difficult to determine, but in the past 13 years, at least 15 deaths have been recorded of women who were sleeping in the huts.
So why hasn’t the law stepped in? As a matter of fact, Chhaupadi is illegal in Nepal, however activists believe that the law alone doesn't suffice to rid the country of Chhaupadi. In 2005, Nepal's Supreme Court banned Chhaupadi, describing it as a human rights violation. Since 2008, authorities have been running public awareness campaigns and in 2017, Nepal’s parliament criminalised it stipulating a three-month jail sentence and/or a 3,000 rupee fine ($22.76, €23.21) for anyone forcing a woman to follow the custom. However, the problem remains that the practice is so deeply entrenched in many communities that the women and girls themselves believe something bad will happen if they do not adhere to the ‘period huts’. One can see the true problem of engraining harmful patriarchal myths about people menstruating being ‘impure’, as they are then perpetuated not only by those who do not experience menstruation, but by those who do too.
This then begs the question as to how much the law actually achieves in changing attitudes towards menstruation, when culturally many countries and communities remain steadfast in their disgust towards it. This article argues that raising awareness and education is the only way in which we can truly change people’s mindsets and behaviours towards menstruation. The shameful, harmful and dangerous misconceptions harboured by certain communities (and indeed the wider world in general) perpetuate taboos and keep girls growing up in the damaging cycle. This also means that tangible changes, like the Period Products Act adopted in Scotland, come into force far later than they should as discussions have been stunted by ignorance and an unwillingness to address the subject. The law codifies and solidifies positive change; however it must work hand in hand with education and spreading awareness. In the future, no one should have to suffer in silence, miss important parts of their education and career, or feel in danger due to menstruation. The law is integral and can help make that a reality – we should be bloody optimistic about it.
If you want to learn more about tackling period poverty and other issues surrounding menstruation, have a look at @periodpovertyexe for more information.
 Plan International, ‘1 in 10 girls have been unable to afford sanitary wear, survey finds’, 2017 <https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/1-in-10-girls-have-been-unable-to-afford-sanitary-wear-survey-finds> Accessed 10th January 2023.  Scottish Government, ‘Period Products Act comes into force,’ 2022 <https://www.gov.scot/news/period-products-act-comes-into-force/#:~:text=The%20Act%20builds%20on%20the,free%20period%20products%20for%20students> Accessed 11th January 2023.  Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021.  Scottish Government n2.  Ibid. Jasmine Andersson, ‘Girls miss more school due to periods than flu, holidays or truancy – and the government needs to take action now, say campaigners’, 2019 <https://inews.co.uk/news/education/girls-miss-school-periods-more-flu-holidays-truancy-293472> Accessed 10th January 2023.  Eloise Barry, ‘Scotland just showed how easy it is to end ‘Period Poverty’’ 2022 <https://time.com/6206216/scotland-law-period-poverty/> Accessed 9th January 2023.  Press release: time to end the stigma (Endometriosis UK) < https://www.endometriosis-uk.org/press-release-time-end-stigma#:~:text=1.5million%20UK%20women%20and,at%20an%20unacceptable%208%20years> Accessed 9th January 2023.  Hannah Bruneau, ‘Travelling when on your period’ (SheTravel, 5th July 2022) <https://shetravel.co.uk/2022/07/05/travelling-when-on-your-period/> Accessed 10th January 2023.  Diwakar Rai, ‘Nepal: Why menstrual huts still exist despite being illegal’ 2022 < https://www.dw.com/en/nepal-why-menstrual-huts-still-exist-despite-being-illegal/a-63464074> Accessed 10th January 2023.  Ibid.  DW, ‘Nepal criminalises exiling of menstruating women’ 2017 <https://www.dw.com/en/nepal-criminalizes-centuries-old-hindu-tradition-of-chhaupadi-for-women/a-40035024> Accessed 10th January 2023.  Ibid.