Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

4:00 pm

Photo of Jim DalyJim Daly (Cork South West, Fine Gael)

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht an dushláin sin.

I thank the women's caucus for highlighting this issue of period poverty and for the opportunity today to discuss an issue which, I am sure we all agree, deserves a higher level of focus and attention in our society. The issue of "period poverty", which is defined as the inability to afford female sanitary products, is an internationally recognised health and social issue. It has significant potential consequences for individual women and girls, in terms of exclusion during menstruation from educational, employment, recreational or social settings and opportunities. There are wider societal costs from such recurrent absenteeism from school or work.

The effects of period poverty on mental and psychosocial well-being are a significant concern, one which is reflected in surveys such as that carried out by the NGO, Plan Ireland International. It reported high levels of feelings of shame and embarrassment about periods and period management. The cumulative effects may be particularly significant for teenage girls, particularly in terms of absenteeism from education. There are also potential impacts on physical health. These include an increased risk of infection, due to the inability to change sanitary products at recommended intervals or from using inappropriately improvised products and materials.

Issues around periods and the impact of period poverty may also be relevant in the context of adolescent girls maintaining the recommended levels of participation in sports and physical activity, which is important for their overall health and well-being. Participation in sport among teenage girls is lower than that of boys of the same age. This is an area of focus under the national physical activity plan and the national sports policy.

The cost of managing periods, in terms of sanitary products and pain relief, has been estimated at more than €200 per annum for women. This is a recurrent annual cost for women over several decades. However, as recent surveys and media coverage have highlighted, period poverty and the anxiety that accompanies it impact disproportionately on vulnerable groups, including the homeless, teenage girls and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

A number of other jurisdictions, including the UK, have recently started to examine measures to address period poverty. In recent years Canada, some US states and India have removed goods and services taxes, the equivalent of VAT, from sanitary products. Accordingly, the Department has given this matter some recent consideration. As a starting point, before budget 2019 my colleague, the Minister for Health, wrote to the Minister for Finance about taxation rates that apply to sanitary products. We therefore understand that tampons and sanitary towels are subject to 0% VAT. As part of VAT harmonisation agreements reached with the EU in the 1990s, the Irish 0% VAT rate on these items at that time was retained. However, newer products are subject to 23% VAT and my understanding is that European Union legislation does not currently permit the use of 0% VAT rates for items not covered by the original exemption.

There also have been initiatives and more highlighting of the issue in Ireland in recent times, including recent consideration by some local authorities of free sanitary product provision in public buildings, facilities and locations, including community centres. For example, Dublin City Council passed a resolution concerning period poverty last year and it has advised that it is running a pilot scheme to provide free sanitary products in four local recreation centres and this has been well received by users. If successful, the intention is to expand the scheme and I take this opportunity to commend the good work on this initiative.

Period poverty, in addition to its adverse effects on inclusion and on health and well-being, is also an equality and equity concern. The financial cost associated with obtaining sanitary products contributes to gender inequality, while varying capacity to afford sanitary products creates inequity among women and girls in Ireland. The issue is very relevant to the ongoing cross-Government work to implement the national womens' and girls' strategy, which aims to advance the rights of women and girls and to enable their full participation in Irish society. Under this important strategy, my Department is developing a women’s health action plan in collaboration with the HSE and the National Women’s Council of Ireland, as well as progressing relevant health policies with an impact on women’s health. We are also participants in the wider implementation oversight committee led by the Department of Justice and Equality.

Tackling this issue of period poverty comprehensively is likely to require a multidisciplinary response from across government. Potential measures to mitigate this issue may include provision of sanitary products free at point of access to vulnerable cohorts, such as school and university students, those in direct provision and socio-economically disadvantaged individuals. Much of this would fall outside the remit of the Department of Health. It may also include additional measures to reduce stigma and ensure all women and girls have the necessary information to manage their periods and how they impact on their health and well-being. This is therefore a matter that would at a minimum require significant input from the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Justice and Equality, as well as local authorities and other partners, in addition to the Department of Health. However, I can confirm that we would be happy to participate in any cross-departmental discussion on this topic and on developing measures to mitigate it. I look forward to hearing the contributions.

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