Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

4:30 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)

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No one chooses to menstruate. Those who are struggling financially are facing a cost for looking after their essential health. They should never be forced into a situation in which they need to choose between sanitary products and other basic needs. Others have referred to the fact that this is an issue for many women and girls in our country. Plan International Ireland has given us a number of statistics. According to one, nearly 50% of Irish teenage girls - Plan International Ireland surveyed girls between the ages of 12 and 19 - find it difficult to afford sanitary products. This is a very stark fact. It is important we put these facts on the floor of our Parliament, that we talk about them not just in rooms where women gather, but also in our national Parliament. It is also a fact that in many other countries the situation is even starker. In some cultures, girls actually drop out of school as soon as they start menstruating. In others countries, girls miss a significant number of school days when they have their period. However, this is also a real issue in our country and one we need to deal with. I will come back to this point before I finish, when I turn to the Minister of State's contribution. I also pay tribute to the Labour Party councillor, Rebecca Moynihan, who was pretty much a pioneer in this area. We are all now dealing with the issue in our Parliament, but Ms Moynihan very much pioneered it on Dublin City Council. A number of other councils around the country are now, we hope, taking up the mantle and providing free sanitary products in their public buildings. We need to develop that here in the Parliament.

I will now go straight to the Minister of State's contribution. I welcome the fact that he said that from his Department's perspective, he is willing to take action. He referred to a number of other relevant Government Departments, including the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Justice and Equality. I now urge the Minister of State to initiate cross-Government action to ensure we get a result on this because what we want to achieve from this debate is not just the highlighting of the issues, but also a result. I invite the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, as the Minister of State present, to do that.

I also welcome the fact that there are a number of men in the Chamber. I threw out a bit of a challenge in the previous debate, in which I happened to be the only woman, and for which there were 12 men in the Chamber talking about insurance. At least some of those men are in the Chamber now, which I welcome because we must ensure that men realise that this is a national issue and an issue for everyone, not just a women's issue. It is about poverty, participation and a very normal bodily function for half the population, and it needs to be embraced. I participated in one of the collection points last Friday for International Women's Day with my colleague, Anne Cronin. We were collecting for women in homeless accommodation and women in direct provision. We specifically asked men to go to the supermarket or wherever else and buy sanitary products and actually realise how much they cost. A number of men did so. I really want to highlight this as a men's issue as well as a women's issue.

We want to achieve a result in a number of areas. One is highlighting the issue here today while another is getting a response from Government. I refer in particular to the regulation of products, information and education in our schools and the VAT issue. While the latter was addressed in respect of some products back in the 1990s, some products are still very highly VAT-rated. While the Minister said the 23% rate is a matter of EU regulation, I hope Ireland will again show leadership in this regard.

In the context of this being a very much cross-party motion, I want to acknowledge one former Member of the House, Fiona O'Malley. I remember her campaigning to get the VAT rate on condoms reduced, which happened back in the 1990s. We should acknowledge people who have ploughed a fairly lonely furrow at times. I specifically remember Ms O'Malley contributing to that debate as a Member of the House.

I think we will make progress on this now, partially due to the work that has been done by people who brought this issue to the fore, but also due to the fact that there is perhaps a genuine recognition now that this is a national social issue that needs to be addressed. Today's debate is very much contributing to that. The main point I wish to make is that we now need to track this, and I know the Women's Caucus will do that. We need to ensure we make progress, that this is not just a once-off debate that highlights an issue and that the collection points and all the other work being done make a difference to women who are vulnerable and women who cannot afford these necessary products. That is not enough, however. We need to make this a matter of policy and a matter of human rights, not just a matter of doing certain things that will alleviate the situation for certain women. We must ensure that period poverty becomes a thing of the past.

Again, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I will now hand over to my colleague, Deputy Sherlock.

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