Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

4:50 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)

First I would like to say that I support the Private Members' motion put forward by the Women's Caucus. It is a positive motion and I have signed it. The points that have been made by Plan International Ireland are quite stark, but they are nothing new for a lot of women and men in our society. Nearly half of teenage girls across Ireland struggle to afford sanitary products during their periods. As has already been mentioned, a survey of more than 1,100 young women aged between 12 and 19 shows that nearly 50% of Irish teenage girls find it difficult to afford sanitary towels and tampons. According to Plan International Ireland, some 109 of the young women who participated in this survey said they were forced to use a less suitable sanitary product because of the high monthly cost involved. Nearly 60% of young women said they did not find classes on periods at school to be helpful, while six out of ten reported feeling shame and embarrassment about their period.

A small number said they believed they could lose their virginity by using a tampon, while others did not think it was possible to become pregnant while having their period. Some 61% of Irish girls have missed school because of their period, and more than 80% said they did not feel comfortable talking about their period with their father or a teacher. Nearly 70% take some sort of pain relief during menstruation. A young woman of 19 who took part in the survey said she felt the need to hide her period from friends and family. She is now a college student and has said:

I’m still not used to looking at the receipt after buying pads and seeing this huge sum that I need to fork over. Pads and tampons are necessities but are still seen as luxury.

That observation is the key point. These are necessities. They pertain to women's bodily functions and they should be provided in public places. As has been said already, they should be provided to women free of charge. I would argue that the pill and contraception should also be free as part of providing for women's health.

In Ireland sanitary towels can cost anywhere between €2 and €6 per pack, with the average pack containing ten to 15 pads. Tampons range in price from about €1.50 to €6 per pack. A 12-pack of Nurofen ibuprofen pain relief tablets costs €4.20. Nearly every woman has a packet of them in her bag when her period is approaching. A woman will have 13 periods a year with some using up to 22 tampons or towels per cycle, leading to an estimated yearly cost of €132.34 for sanitary products.

Earlier the point was made that discussing menstruation, women's health, vaginas, periods, etc., is a taboo. That comes from a culture in this country that is testament to the strength of the church's control, particularly over women of my era. I was born in 1961. I remember a time when girls did not know what was happening to them when they got their period. They thought they were dying. All a girl had was a little pamphlet given to her by Sister Mary. The authorities told girls a few things about their period, but they would not talk to anyone else. The information a girl would get came from talking to her mates on street corners. She would rely on older children who had experienced it and gone through it. I am glad that day is over. We are pushing that monkey off our back and we are able to discuss the topic of a basic bodily function in the Dáil and other public fora.

I also support one of the motion's call on the Government to 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 wish to qualify this by pointing out that period poverty is a symptom of poverty. We cannot get away from that point, which other Deputies have also made. In 2015, Deputy Burton kicked lone parents in the teeth when she reduced the age ceiling for the one-parent family payment to seven years for the youngest child. The idea behind that was to encourage women, particularly lone parents, into the workplace, where they could get better pay and get out of the poverty trap. We now know that by 2017 a lone parent working 20 hours on minimum wage was down €108 a week. That does not include the cuts to child benefit, rent allowance and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Some of those cuts have been reversed but payments have not been returned to the level they were at in 2012.

In discussing this we must mention a report of Society of St. Vincent de Paul entitled Working, Parenting and Struggling?, which has already been referred to. The report found that in 2012 one in 11 lone parents was living below the poverty line. By 2017 that proportion had increased to one in five. That was a direct outcome of the 2015 cuts in the lone parent family payment. It is very stark. How can women pay for sanitary towels, tampons or painkillers if they have been reduced to a level where one lone parent in five lives below the poverty line?

That report also found that in 2017, 45% of lone parents reported that housing costs represented a heavy financial burden. Almost 18% were in arrears on rent or mortgage repayments. The proportion of other households with children that were in arrears was 8%. In 2017, 58% of lone parents were working compared to 46% in 2012. This is the lowest rate among the EU15 countries. There are also issues of food poverty, housing poverty and health poverty because of low pay and the decisions and policies of this Government and the last Government. These Governments reduced payments and pay right across the board, which has affected women.

I support the motion and will be voting for it, as I am sure everybody here will. However, all these issues have to be taken on board when we talk about period poverty. They are all linked to poverty. We need a Government that is progressive and that does not feed the spoils of the so-called recovery to the top 10% of earners. A report published by the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, on 19 February found that the top 10% of Ireland's population receives almost 25% of the national income. The bottom 40% of the country's population receives only 22% of national income, while the top 1% receives more than 5%.

Until we change our policies from those of the right-wing Government we have been subjected to for the last three years, we will continue to see that sort of poverty. However, this motion will go a long way in the right direction. I hope to see sanitary towels, tampons and other sanitary items made available in public buildings, libraries, workplaces, retail units and shops. I support the motion, but I repeat the point that this is really down to poverty. Unless we address those issues we will continue to see issues like this.

I referred earlier to Deputy Burton and her Government, which ran from 2011 to 2016. It sticks in my craw a little bit to see certain people flying the flag for this cause and making the point that women on low income struggle when they were part of implementing the cuts affecting those women. They should think about what they are saying and doing. However, it is great to see that the three Dublin county councils have introduced this and are running a pilot scheme to make sanitary towels available in the buildings they run and organise.

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