Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Period Poverty: Motion


3:40 pm

Photo of Catherine MartinCatherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:notes that:

— the average woman, or anyone who experiences periods, will have 507 periods from age 12 to 51, for roughly 39 years of her life;

— in Ireland, sanitary products can cost from €2 to €6 per pack, with the average pack containing 10 to 15 pads or tampons, and that a 12 pack of pain relief tablets costs between €6 and €10;

— most women and girls will have 13 periods a year, with some using up to 22 tampons and/or towels per cycle leading to an estimated annual cost of €208 for sanitary products and pain relief, costing €8,100 over a lifetime;

— access to affordable sanitary products and menstrual education should be viewed in a human rights context, as according to the World Health Organisation’s constitution ‘...the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being’;

— the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council Resolution 33/10 on 29th September, 2016 states that lack of menstrual health management and stigma associated with menstruation both have a negative impact on gender equality and women’s and girls’ enjoyment of human rights, including the right to education and the right to health;

— the UN Committee on Rights of the Child’s General comment No. 20 (2016) on implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence has stated that ‘All adolescents should have access to free, confidential, adolescent-responsive and non-discriminatory sexual and reproductive health services, information and education... [including on] menstrual hygiene’;

— according to a survey of more than 1,100 young girls and women aged between 12 and 19 years by Plan International Ireland, nearly 50 per cent of Irish teenage girls find it difficult to afford sanitary products;

— some 109 of the young women who participated in the survey said they were forced to use a ‘less suitable sanitary product’ because of the high monthly cost involved;

— nearly 60 per cent, or one in two, of young women and girls said school does not inform them adequately about periods;

— six out of ten young women reported feeling shame and embarrassment about their period, 61 per cent miss school on their period and more than 80 per cent said they did not feel comfortable talking about their periods with their father or a teacher; and

— nearly 70 per cent of young women take some form of pain relief during menstruation;acknowledges that:— tampons and sanitary towels are not subject to Value Added Tax (VAT) in Ireland, which has a zero rate treatment on women’s sanitary products, but new period products that may better suit some women, girls and the environment, are still taxed at the highest rate of tax at 23 per cent;

— due to the high cost of these products women and girls in period poverty are resorting to unsuitable options such as newspaper, toilet paper or unwashed clothing;

— girls and young women who suffer shame and embarrassment surrounding their period are more likely to use unsuitable options rather than approach family members or their teacher;

— in September 2018, Dublin City Council announced it will provide free sanitary products in its buildings, such as community centres, swimming pools and libraries;

— the advances being made in other countries, such as the success of a six month pilot in Aberdeen to provide free products in all schools funded by the Scottish Government;and— the work of organisations such as Plan International Ireland and The Homeless Period to alleviate the stress and financial burden placed on women and girls due to period poverty; andcalls on the Government to:— provide a range of free, adequate, safe and suitable sanitary products and comprehensive, objective menstrual education information distributed through all public buildings, including schools, universities, direct provision centres, refuges, homeless services, Garda stations, hospitals, maternity hospitals, prisons, detention centres and rehabilitation centres so as to tackle period poverty and de-stigmatise and normalise menstruation;

— ensure all menstrual products available in Ireland are safe, through regulation and quality checks;

— ensure young women, girls and people of other genders can learn about their periods and menstrual hygiene in a normalising and safe environment, including online by providing a State-run website with objective information, and ensure girls, boys and people of other genders have access to education about menstruation integrated into the school curriculum;

— ensure improved access to hygienic facilities and sanitary products that are affordable and meet individual needs;

— work with other countries across the European Union to remove VAT on all sanitary products, including healthy and environmentally-friendly sanitary products such as cups and period-proof underwear; and

— prioritise the issue of menstrual equity for girls and children’s rights as central to Irish Aid’s work overseas in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, and Goal 6 which calls for universal and equitable access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.

I am sharing time with the Deputy Chairperson of the Oireachtas Women's Parliamentary Caucus, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy.

Is onóir í dom an rún seo a mholadh ar son chácas na mban san Oireachtas. Lá stairiúil is ea an lá seo do Dháil Éireann, agus mná ar fud an speictream polaitiúil ag teacht le chéile ar an rún ar bhochtanas míostraithe. Táim bródúil go bhfuil cácas na mban ag obair chun an cheist seo a shoiléiriú tríd an rún seo a mholadh. Agus muid ag obair le chéile agus ag cur polaitíocht na bpáirtithe ar leataobh, táimid ábalta éifeacht dhearfach a bhaint amach do mhná agus cailíní na tíre seo. Níl sa rún seo ach tús le cácas na mban san Oireachtas. Tá sé ar intinn againn níos mó reachtaíochta a chur chun cinn amach anseo chun dul i ngleic le réimse leathan ábhar a bhaineann le mná. Is iomaí agus is coimpléascaí na bacanna ar chomhionnanas a bhaint amach. Le chéile, mar mhná, is fórsa éifeachtach muid chun athruithe dearfacha a bhaint amach.

According to research conducted by Plan International Ireland, 50% of women between the ages of 12 and 19 struggle to afford sanitary products. Can one imagine that roughly half of young women in Ireland cannot afford a basic product? This seems like an issue about which we should all be talking if not shouting. It might surprise some Members that up until this moment the word "menstruation" has appeared only 27 times on the Oireachtas records. That record will certainly be broken this evening. Something that affects roughly 50% of the teenage and adult population has been mentioned fewer than 30 times in our national Parliament since the foundation of our State. When one delves into those records, one will 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. This is worrying because period poverty is a real issue for women in Ireland. It is having a negative impact on their education, well-being and quality of life. Accordingly, it and must be spoken about and addressed in those terms.

It is estimated that Irish women and girls spend an average of €132 every year on tampons and sanitary towels. For women, girls and those experiencing periods who are homeless, in direct provision or in full-time education, this is a substantial cost. Many often have to resort to cheap, unsafe products or crude alternatives. The monthly burden of purchasing sanitary products falls on approximately half the population by virtue of their biology. This is both an issue of equality and of dignity.

This motion will be a significant move in addressing the issue of period poverty and bringing further attention to this issue, building on a growing movement across Ireland and the world. Last year, on foot of a motion tabled by Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, Dublin City Council announced that it would provide free sanitary products in its buildings. The Homeless Period Ireland organisation, directed brilliantly by Claire Hunt, now has 30 drop-off points for people to donate sanitary products to homeless women.

Students across Ireland have been working to address period poverty in their schools. Just yesterday, students from St. Bricin's in Cavan and Eureka secondary school in Meath came to a briefing relating to this motion in Leinster House. They spoke about the work they are doing through their Young Social Innovators projects and the real impact it is having for students in their schools.

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.

Members of Dáil Éireann need to show leadership on this issue. Our caucus motion this evening is calling for the provision of a range of free sanitary products, including environmentally friendly products in all public buildings, from schools and universities to direct provision centres, refuges, hospitals and prisons as a way to tackle period poverty.

Our call does not end at providing free sanitary products. We are also calling for objective menstrual education information to be available in all public buildings. We seek 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. Crucially, we are calling for comprehensive and normalising education on periods in schools and to open up the discussion on periods to everyone.

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.

The stigma surrounding periods and the cost of period products have very real consequences. Plan International Ireland’s survey found that 61% of Irish girls have missed school because of their period. If 61% 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 cannot afford sanitary products. Education is a basic human right and we must do everything we can to ensure that right is not jeopardised. We need to remove the taboo around discussing menstruation. No woman should ever feel burdened with unnecessary stress, embarrassment or anxiety every month because of their gender or financial circumstances.

We need to be able speak openly about periods so that we can learn about the many and complex issues that people face when on their periods, and address those issues. For instance, have Members ever thought about where sanitary product dispensers are placed? Usually they are found in non-wheelchair accessible women’s bathrooms, positioned at about 5 ft. from the ground. This makes them inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, to little people and to trans men.

When we shroud issues in stigma, when we fail to have open conversation, we often end up further marginalising whole sections of society. I hope that when this motion passes, that these conversations are had and that inclusive accessibility to free products is ensured across the country.

We also need to be able to be assured of the safety of the products we use, which is why this motion is calling for better regulation of sanitary products. Last week, Lynn Boylan, MEP, highlighted that the responsibility of ensuring the safety of these products rests with the manufacturers. These are health products so their safety should be ensured through proper State-led regulation.

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 people do not feel able to talk openly about their concerns, we end up with people quietly suffering. I would like to emphasise that it is not just the women who need to have this conversation. Of 158 Deputies, only 35 women have been elected to the Dáil and I am disappointed so few men have decided to attend the debate this evening, because this is an issue about which we need to educate our fathers, sons and brothers. While the caucus has ensured that the Dáil has this conversation tonight, and we are grateful that we got Government time for this motion, I cannot emphasise enough that we need more than conversation. It is over to the Government to take the necessary action outlined in our motion to put an end to period poverty. One action it can easily take is to allocate funding in the next budget for the provision of free sanitary products in all public buildings.

I am proud of the work the Women’s Caucus has done to shed light on this issue by bringing forward this motion. While the Women’s Caucus enjoys the support of the vast majority of women Members of the Oireachtas, and there have been so many valuable contributions to it by former female Members, I am also aware there are women who are not active members of it, or who chose not to be in it at all, who have co-signed this motion and will speak in support of it tonight. I acknowledge them and thank them for their support which has led to all women Members of the Dáil uniting today on this motion. In doing so, I recognise the fact that democracy in the form of Dáil elections has repeatedly returned women of different viewpoints and different political backgrounds to this House. Often, we disagree more than we agree and that is why today is a glimpse of, and shines a light on, what can be achieved through this dynamic, of women working together, casting aside party political differences, which they genuinely and passionately hold, and exploring options of where we can be a force of positive change and action together.

I thank those who helped bring this motion to the Dáil today. Míle buíochas to Sinead Mercier who drafted the motion with invaluable input from Claire Hunt of Homeless Period Ireland and the team at Plan International Ireland. I thank my own team, Una Power, Donal Swan, Anna Conlan, Catherine O’Keeffe and Linda Wilson, who went above and beyond in their work on this motion. I would also like to acknowledge the Senators from our caucus who have attended tonight’s debate and will be debating this motion in the Seanad on 27 March. I also thank Laura Harmon from the National Women's Council of Ireland who acts as the secretariat for our caucus.

I especially welcome and thank all the visitors in the Gallery this evening, who represent activists, academics and the many organisations and NGOs which do so much to highlight not only this issue but the many issues of inequality and discrimination facing women across the world. I also thank the Ceann Comhairle for his unwavering support of the Women’s Caucus.

I take the opportunity as chair of the caucus to state that tonight’s 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 diverse range of women’s issues which need attention. Of course, legislative change is only one facet of the caucus’s work. Since it was established, a mere 18 months ago, we have been making our voices heard on a range of issues. From the forthcoming survey on harassment, bullying and sexual harassment in Leinster House, which the caucus requested and insisted would include every single person who works in Leinster House, to ensuring consultation on the women in the home referendum, to working with female parliamentarians globally by founding and hosting the International Congress of Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses, we are putting women to front and centre of political decision making. That is where we belong.

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


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