Period Politics

What would life be like without a toilet? 2.5 billion people know only too well. Imagine if you did not have access to such a variety of sanitary products. For too many this is a reality.


For more than one third of the world’s population, this is still the best toilet they have. (Photo: Youphil)

For more than one third of the world’s population, this is still the best toilet they have. (Photo: Youphil)

What would life be like without a toilet? Why don’t we ask the one-in-three who lack access to a basic one? The truth is: a lack of sanitation affects 2.5 billion people around the world, a disproportionate number of whom are women and girls – and we don’t know enough about it. The impact on their lives is heart-breaking; they are forced to defecate in the open and cope with periods without privacy – which just adds to the indignity. But it’s easy to think that this is just a global, distant problem. The debate over “tampon tax” has dominated the news recently, but how many know that women in refuges or homeless shelters in the UK do not get provided with sanitary products, because they are not considered “necessities?”

Global:

What’s the problem?

It is estimated that women and children in developing countries spend 97 billion hours a year searching for somewhere to go to the toilet – double the number of hours worked by the entire UK labour force in a year.
This is having a wider impact on the education of girls in less developed countries. Girls are very likely to drop out of school after they start menstruating because there is nowhere to dispose pads, no washing facilities and the toilets don’t have locks. People do always say that girls go to the toilet in groups; there’s a reason. The lack of access to toilets makes women and girls more vulnerable to rape and other forms of sexual violence, as they have no choice but to travel miles to reach a bathroom. And, of course, because menstruation is so taboo, they are forced to travel alone at night.

Yet it remains that we do not know enough about these issues. Sanitation is a problem which mostly affects women because of their unspoken, unacknowledged (dare I even say it) periods. Therefore, women and girls have a need for greater access when using the toilet. But somehow all of this has escaped our notice. In a world where only 63 of 142 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have had a female head of government or state at some point in the last 50 years, it is not surprising that sanitation slips off the agenda. Menstruation has been a cultural taboo for so long because of its connotations of being “dirty” and men, never having experienced it, tend not to understand the problems well enough.

But it is time for this to stop.

What has the response been?
Such a small, basic change can have such a great impact (Photo: The Cleanzine)

Such a small, basic change can have such a great impact (Photo: The Cleanzine)

In 2000, 189 countries signed up to the Millennium Development Goals, one of which was to reduce to proportion of the world’s population without sustainable

access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. However, the targets for 2015 were not reached and now will not be met in sub-Saharan Africa until the 23rd Century.

This is shocking. There cannot be equality or progress in the world if 2.5 billion people still lack sanitation services, including 946 million who are still practising open defecation.

Clean water and sanitation are not a luxury. They are a basic human right.

What can be done?

Unfortunately, but reassuringly, tackling this problem is falling to charities. Water Aid has played a vital role in raising awareness about sanitation issues and has been instrumental in trying to solve the problem through fundraising. Another, Toilet Twinning, has drawn attention to the specific, albeit more awkward, problem that more than a third of the world’s population doesn’t have somewhere safe, clean and hygienic to go to the toilet.

However, it is crucial that sanitation makes its way onto the government’s agenda and springboards onto an international platform. This can only be done by raising awareness and discussing sanitation issues openly, otherwise no politician will either know or want to broach the subject.

Local:

What’s the problem?

The same standard that allows VAT to be charged on sanitary products (i.e. pads and tampons) means that women in refuges or homeless shelters do not get provided with them: they are not considered “necessities” Again, this stems from the fact that men have dominated politics for centuries and have not had a deep enough understanding of the consequences of menstruation. It should go without saying that periods are natural and therefore sanitary products are a fundamental necessity. It is unacceptable that homeless women have to resort to using toilet paper as a substitute for pads because they are too expensive, whilst condoms are free on the NHS.

Imagine if you didn’t have access to such a variety. Too many women don’t. (Spike Luver)

Imagine if you didn’t have access to such a variety. Too many women don’t. (Spike Luver)

What has the response been?

Despite George Osbourne’s promise that the £15 million raised from the so-called “tampon tax” will now go to women’s charities, nothing has been said about providing for those women in shelters or refuges.

Yet, organisations have started to help. For example, FlowAid was started by a teenage entrepreneur in order to distribute sanitary products in cities across the UK. The Homeless Period is also an accessible organisation which raises awareness about this problem and advises the public on how to help.

What can be done?

One thing that The Homeless Period highlights is the great impact that a small action can make: simply by donating sanitary products to a homeless shelter as, as one might to a food bank, we can improve the lives for those there.

Finally, the best way to tackle a taboo issue is to talk about it. The actions taken by charitable organisations count for nothing, unless there is a platform for them to spread awareness about their work. Without such a platform, sanitation issues will never reach a global agenda, even though they desperately need to be addressed. All in all, as demonstrated by the minimal government response, it falls to the individual to use their little action and help make a great impact, so that women locally and globally can gain a full education, feel safe and break their silence. Period.

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Lylaah Bhalerao
Lylaah Bhalerao

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