Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

4:50 pm

Photo of Michael HartyMichael Harty (Clare, Independent)

I thank the Women's Caucus for introducing this motion.

6 o’clock

I was not aware of the term "period poverty" until this past week, even though the issue of menstrual bleeding is a common one which presents to general practice and is raised in medical consultations. Bringing this motion before the House is a sign of growing confidence and maturity in this Dáil. It would not have come about were it not for the creation of the caucus. It is a sign of maturity and the fact that we are moving on and that we can discuss these issues in an open forum.

Menstruation is a very intimate issue that is taboo for many women. It is a private process. It is a personal bodily function, which means that it is very rarely spoken about in public. It relates to sexual function and reproduction. It is to be seen as a very normal process but something which causes problems for many women. Menstrual bleeding is a natural process in most cases but it can be a medical problem for a significant number of women.

Education of young girls is essential in addressing this issue. The process in this regard should start in school. Menstruation is a natural process so it should be discussed as part of the normal education of our young girls. It is an essential part of their femininity and is important in the context of their social status. It should be part of normal sex education not only for girls but for boys as well, and it should be part of our educational curriculum. There are many issues in health which should be part of our educational curriculum and this is certainly one of them.

Menstruation is a medical issue in some women in terms of excessive bleeding but, thankfully, due to advances in medical technology, menorrhagia or excessive bleeding in women no longer results in hysterectomies. The insertion of a Mirena coil can cure that problem or certainly control it. However, there are many other issues in respect of abnormal menstrual bleeding such as endometriosis, which Deputy Corcoran Kennedy mentioned, and also polycystic ovaries. It is very important, therefore, that young girls realise that if their menstrual bleeding is excessive, irregular or abnormal, it is a medical issue about which they should speak to their doctor.

This motion relates to the cost and the availability of sanitary ware but it also refers to understanding the issues women have in terms of their lifestyles and activities. Menstrual bleeding can impinge significantly on the activities of daily living, including on involvement in sport and recreation. If it is severe it can interfere with education or work. It is an issue which transcends normal bleeding but also abnormal bleeding and feeds into the way women interact with society.

The cost of managing menstrual bleeding is not an issue for everybody. However, it is an issue for those who do not have financial independence such as adolescents and students but also marginalised sectors of our society which have been highlighted in the motion, one of which is homeless women. It must be a very difficult issue for homeless women who do not have access to toilets and privacy to deal with their menstruation. It is an issue for women in direct provision and also for women in our Traveller community who do not have secure and permanent living circumstances. There are many sectors of society in which this issue is far more important than others. It also affects people who have to manage their resources on very limited incomes.

Free access to sanitary care is logical. It is an issue in terms of hygiene and also having access to sanitary ware when it is needed. I refer again to Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's contribution. If someone turned up at a toilet and found there was no toilet paper, that person would be very aggrieved. There is no reason access to sanitary ware for the menstrual cycle should not be freely available. As a general practitioner, I have baby-changing and breast-feeding facilities in my surgery but it never entered my head to provide sanitary ware. I would expect that is the case in many doctors' surgeries. I will highlight to the medical representative organisations the fact that these are important items to have available in surgeries. The women's caucus is proposing in the motion that sanitary ware should be widely available in all public places so it is a natural extension that they should be available in doctors' surgeries.

Regarding the taboo in terms of menstruation and natural reproductive issues, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy referred to women being churched in the past. It may be a sign of our age but it is only two generations ago that women were churched. The process of being churched was that when a woman had a baby, she could not enter the church again until she had been cleansed of her lack of purification. It was a purification rite. It was considered almost a sin if a woman did not present ,to the priest in the church to receive a blessing and be returned to a state of grace. If women speak to the members of the generation that preceded them, many will tell them of this activity. It may not have been common in urban areas but in rural areas it was a tradition that following the birth of her baby a woman was churched to cleanse her of what was almost the sin of reproduction. Such are our changing times that this ritual, for want of a better word, no longer happens.

Regarding women's menstrual cycles, there is a very important issue the women's caucus should also consider, that is, the provision of free contraception. It is extremely important that we provide free contraception. If we are to deal with the issue of crisis pregnancy, we cannot throw our hands up in horror if we have not made every attempt to provide free contraception. The Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution had an addendum to its findings and recommendations to the effect that free contraception should be available as part of the issue of dealing with unwanted pregnancies, crisis pregnancies and abortion. That issue should be on the agenda of the women's caucus. I know it has other issues it wants to discuss but that is an extremely important one that is also of current interest.

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