Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

3:50 pm

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Offaly, Fine Gael)

I am glad to address this important matter as vice chair of the Oireachtas Women’s Caucus today and I want to take the opportunity to commend my cross-party colleagues on their work on this issue. I also welcome the visitors in the Gallery this evening.

Many people are uncomfortable talking about menstruation, many people do not want to talk about it and many people will dismiss the need for this motion but that does not mean we should not raise this issue.

5 o’clock

We women are best qualified to talk about menstruation because it is a normal part of life for us. Why should we be embarrassed or ashamed? Why should we buy into advertisers negative stereotyping of menstruation?

For the majority of us, period poverty is not an issue. In fact, the term is new to many people, including me. However, closer inspection of the evidence provided by Plan International Ireland and Homeless Period Ireland demonstrates that it is a matter that needs urgent action. It is primarily about the quality of life of our women and girls. It is not only an issue for other countries, as many of us may have believed in the past, but for Ireland also.

Women's health has been viewed through a peculiar prism over the years. Menstruation happens all over the planet, in every country every day, yet it is almost taboo to discuss it. Why this should be so is curious. It might be because the female reproductive system has been viewed as unclean in some cultures, including our own. Not many years ago in this country, women who delivered a child were seen as unclean and needed to be churched before they could feed their family or bake bread. I suppose it is no surprise, therefore, that menstruation is viewed in the same light despite the fact that it is one of the three ways that the human female body excretes waste. It is a normal bodily function in which we have no choice, just as we have no choice in urination or defecation. However, the fact is that the only sanitary product provided for free in most bathrooms across the world is toilet paper. Perhaps if men menstruated, things would be different.

There are many challenges being experienced by women of all ages in managing their health and hygiene on a monthly basis, even if they can afford sanitary products. However, I will focus first on the most marginalised in society. Homeless women and women in direct provision are particularly vulnerable. Imagine being homeless and all of the daily challenges that brings. Then imagine being a homeless menstruating woman and having to manage one's monthly period on top of that. Think of girls and women in direct provision where evidence is emerging that the provision of sanitary products, where available, is patchy. In some cases, there are reports that the products provided are substandard. This has to change.

I had the privilege of meeting Ms Claire Hunt, the founder of Homeless Period Ireland, yesterday at our audiovisual room briefing. I acknowledge her initiative and drive not only in identifying the need of these vulnerable women but in deciding to do something about it. Donated feminine hygiene products are brought by volunteers to direct provision centres, homeless outreach centres and women's refuges. A donation station has been set up here in the Leinster House coffee dock, which is definitely a first for this campus.

I acknowledge also the excellent work of Plan International Ireland, which is a child centred community development organisation. The evidence it has provided shows that 43% of girls did not know what to do when their period first started; 15% did not even know what was happening to them; 50% of girls between the ages of 12 and 19 years find it difficult to afford sanitary products; and 61% have missed school because of their period. The survey also highlighted the lack of information available to them on what is happening to their bodies on starting menstruation and the fact that they need pain relief at some stage, which adds to the financial burden. At our briefing yesterday, a social worker based at the national maternity hospital confirmed that many new mothers approach her to provide sanitary products for them due to the cost.

If this motion is successful, as I know it will be, and acted upon, free sanitary products will be provided in all public buildings such as schools, universities, direct provision centres, refuges, homeless services, Garda stations, hospitals, maternity hospitals, prisons, detention centres and rehabilitation centres. I am optimistic that other buildings in receipt of public funding will follow suit, including Pobal funded projects in swimming pools, community halls, centres and theatres.

Another vital element of this motion is to ensure that menstrual education is provided for boys and girls as well as their parents to tackle the lack of accurate and trustworthy information on menstruation. Learning about what is and is not normal is crucial. It is vital, for example, to understand the symptoms of endometriosis which, I understand, affects about 10% of menstruating women.

An interesting fact provided by AkiDwA is that it is normal for girls from some African countries to begin menstruation as young as 7 or 8 years of age. As many of them are now living here and attending school, this needs to be taken into account in assisting our primary schools to deal with this fact. Our teachers are under considerable pressure in the rapidly changing digital age and perhaps a solution might be to have the HSE develop and deliver a special menstrual education programme. The Minister for Health should consider this possibility under the Healthy Ireland framework, which takes a whole-of-Government and whole-of-society approach. Whatever is decided upon, it should most certainly be separated from sex education in schools.

It is interesting that some second level schools are encouraging their students to develop projects on the subject. Children from two schools, St. Bricin's College in County Cavan and Eureka Secondary School in County Meath, were present at our briefing yesterday. They articulated the findings of their research, which was most revealing about shame and embarrassment in having periods, difficulties in discussing their period with parents or teachers and the cost to low-income families. Despite their positive opportunity to conduct this research in their schools, there is some evidence that boards of management are preventing such projects being undertaken in schools. We have an uphill battle ahead to normalise what is a normal bodily function for half of our population.

Other countries have been leading the way, prompted largely by young activists. They include Scotland, which was referred to earlier, and the NHS in Wales. New York City Council and Dublin are other examples. I pay special tribute to Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, who deserves great credit for achieving support for her initiative on Dublin City Council.

We are getting some things right in that there is 0% VAT on most traditional sanitary products. However, it is hard to believe that the 23% VAT rate is levied on cups, period underwear and reusable pads. These items are not luxuries, but necessities to our girls and women. This must be reviewed during budget considerations.

I am sorry if I am boring the two gentlemen who are having a completely separate conversation while I am trying to make a point here. It is not acceptable or fair that they are engaged in a conversation when they should be paying attention to proceedings.

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