Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

4:10 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)

As the Minister has not taken his full allocation of time, I am sure this side of the House would be happy to take it if we can get it. I am happy to share time with my colleague, Deputy Billy Kelleher.

It is great to be part of this historic day as the women's caucus - women from all parties and none - has come together to bring forward this motion for the sake of girls and women in Ireland. I pay tribute to the chairperson of the caucus, Deputy Catherine Martin, and to Ms Una Power and Mr. Donal Swan in her office, for the leadership and support they have given. I also pay tribute to the deputy chairperson, Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and all the women involved, including former female Members of this House and the Seanad.

There are 1.8 billion women around the world who menstruate, and the average woman will have 507 periods from age 12 to age 51, amounting to 39 years of her life. Women face a financial burden throughout the course of their lives dealing with this monthly reality. An estimated annual cost is €208, leading to a lifetime cost of €8,100. That is the lower end of the scale and we must recognise that for some, this is a prohibitive cost associated with menstruation. Some women struggle to pay for sanitary products on a monthly basis It is unacceptable that any woman or girl would be unable to access sanitary products due to period poverty or not being able to buy these essential products.

Stark figures released last summer reveal that almost 50% of teenage girls in Ireland struggle to afford monthly sanitary products and it is not unheard of that young women may have no choice but to go without sanitary products to make ends meet. Some households' weekly budget cannot stretch far enough to afford these products; they are luxuries not certainties for too many households. Given the price of rent, the cost of student fees and general living expenses, college students too are running an exceptionally tight budget. It goes without saying that women living in homelessness and in direct provision have severely limited access to these products.

Periods are an entirely normal part of life for every woman worldwide. Both the United Nations and the leading non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly recognised menstrual hygiene as a human right. Irrespective of income, background or circumstance, every woman should have equal access to sanitary products in a discreet and dignified way. No woman should be left unable to manage her period. This is a matter of promoting and maintaining public health and an important conversation that must be had, both here in the Dáil and Seanad and on the streets, in communities, in homes and in schools.

Before researching the matter, we might have assumed that period poverty affects only women in other countries. We know that other countries have serious issues around women and menstruation. For example, women can be banned from temples in India when menstruating and in Zambia, menstruating women are not supposed to cook or touch certain foods. In Nepal, during a period women are sent to sleep in small menstrual huts where there is no heat or electricity. In Kenya, motorbike boda bodadrivers were found to be trading sexual favours in return for sanitary products, taking advantage of vulnerable young schoolgirls. However, the grim reality is that women in Ireland suffer from stigma and shame around menstruation and a substantial number of women in Ireland are unable to afford the products they need, as I mentioned. The women's caucus therefore is absolutely united in our determination to alleviate the period poverty suffered by a substantial number of Irish women every month.

I have mentioned the Plan International study, which indicates that more than one in ten girls has had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues and 61% of girls are too embarrassed to talk about their period, with the same number missing school as a direct result of menstruation. Aside from financial reasons, there are also social and cultural reasons these products may not be available at home. It is not our job to question why people need these donations but we must focus on the fact that everyone deserves equal access to period products, whatever the situation. I particularly refer to homeless women, those who are in direct provision and the women and girls in full-time education.

The UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/10 states that the lack of menstrual health management and stigma associated with menstruation both have a negative impact on gender equality and womens' and girls' enjoyment of human rights, including the right to education and the right to health. The Minister of State did not give a full commitment but today we are calling on the Government to provide comprehensive, objective menstrual education and information to normalise menstruation. We are calling on the Government to provide free, adequate, safe and suitable sanitary products that are environmentally friendly for the 50% of the population for whom menstruation is an unavoidable reality of life.

Internationally, efforts are being made to address the issue. There are examples in Kenya, Kerala in southern India, Scotland and the broader UK and, as we heard, through Dublin City Council, which is very positive.

Forty years ago, the feminist Gloria Steinem talked about what the world would look like if men were the ones who menstruated. I venture that things would be very different because period poverty is just another hurdle for women to overcome in a society that is still dominated by gendered inequalities. It was Ms Steinem who stated that the first resistance to social change is to say that it is not necessary. If we are serious about gender equality and reproductive rights, we must recognise the necessity of solving period poverty in order to afford females the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being, as laid out in the constitution of the World Health Organization. Like my colleagues, I pay tribute to Plan International and Claire Hunt from Homeless Period Ireland. There is an area in the coffee dock in LH2000 where we are collecting sanitary products. It is great to see so many there already. It will be open until tomorrow evening and everybody is welcome to place some products there for us to bring to some of the homeless hubs where they are needed.

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