In the last couple of years, countries from Canada to the UK have made headlines for abolishing the tampon tax. But for many low-income women – whether in Western metropolises or sub-Saharan Africa – savings of several cents do not tackle the real problem: these products can be unaffordable altogether.
Almost two-thirds of Kenyan women and girls cannot afford sanitary pads, and instead have to use homemade alternatives, from cloth to grass and feathers. These can be unhygienic and lead to serious infections. Desperate need for sanitary products has also forced some women and girls have to sex in exchange for them – a recent report said that two-thirds of women who use pads in Kenya get them through their sexual partners. In sub-Saharan Africa more generally, approximately one in 10 girls also misses schoolbecause of their period.
And the problem is not restricted to the developing world. Food banks from New York to Newcastle (as dramatised in Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake) have long been desperate for supplies for their cities’ poorest women. For one in 10 British people, the cost of sanitary products almost equates to their entire discretionary income after bills and necessities are paid. Earlier this year, two Leeds teenagers told the BBC how their inability to afford sanitary protection had made them miss school. One of the girls said: “I wrapped a sock around my underwear just to stop the bleeding, because I didn’t want to get shouted at…” Women in New York spend around $10 a month on sanitary products, while in the UK the figure is approximately $17 each month. While this may not sound like a lot, for many – including but not limited to the hundreds of thousands of homeless women in these places – such extra expenditure can be crippling. One study has shown that approximately one in 10 Brits has only $13 or less left to spend or save each month after covering all bills and necessities, and a quarter have less than $65 a month.