The invisible poverty that hides behind the taboo of the rule

Every month, Adolfina spends some of the days she has her period using old cloths as a compress or cotton clothes that her two children are outgrowing or no longer fit. "I spend my time washing, like in the old days," she says. It is what she makes of herself during the time she is at home because menstrual products are for her "a luxury" that she cannot always afford. She must choose and her priority is that her 12-year-old daughter does use pads, "the cheapest ones in the supermarket." "I can't teach her to do it this way, but at home I do whatever it takes because we need to use the money for more essential things," she remarks.

Adolfina is one of the women who suffer the so-called menstrual povertya reality barely investigated and little recognized both socially and legislatively and that has returned to the agenda these days after leaking the draft of the Organic Law for the protection of sexual and reproductive rights and the guarantee of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, in which Equality includes some measures that are still being negotiated, such as the reduction of VAT on articles for menstruation or the distribution of these products in educational centers, social services or prisons.

The invisibility of this problem and the needs associated with it are something that this Paraguayan woman, who has been living in Spain for 15 years, is well aware of, and for whom the money is barely enough to pay the rent where she lives with her two children, the four year old. "I have a food aid with which I am going to buy at a solidarity supermarket where there are almost always diapers, gel, cleaning products... but compresses I do not remember having brought from there because I have never seen them," he says. she.

It is a relatively important expense for pockets that do not make ends meet, although the amount depends on many factors: the method chosen, its particularities, the type and duration of each period... A box of tampons can fluctuate, from average, between three and seven euros; a pack of compresses, between two and five, and one of panty liners, between 1.5 and 4 euros. It is common for a woman to use more than one method during a cycle. A calculation by the OCU for the year 2021 pointed out that the average annual expenditure can exceed 50 euros in all types of products except the menstrual cup, an outlay that will most likely last for about 40 years.

There is hardly any data that measures the impact of menstrual poverty in Spain and none draws from official statistics, while organizations such as Cáritas recognize that it is not a problem that they have incorporated into their analysis. One of the most ambitious studies that has tried to x-ray it is the one launched by the IDIAPJGol research institute, which has interviewed 22,000 participants. The latest results conclude that 22.2% of women have not been able to access feminine hygiene products at some point in their lives due to economic difficulties and up to 39.9% cannot afford the product of their choice.

"There is a silence that surrounds this problem, not even sometimes the women themselves identify that we can be in this situation or we assume it without thinking that it is something unfair that should be addressed," explains Laura Medina Perucha, one of the coordinators of the study of IDIAPJGoal. Women, who face higher levels of poverty, bear this usually hidden cost due to "their own stigma and taboo" that continue to weigh on menstruation, says the researcher. They are, in fact, the majority in the lowest salary deciles: 75% of the people who earn up to 521 euros per month are women and 58.7% of those who earn less than 1,007 euros per month.

Not even 400 euros is the money that Alejandra, 36 weeks pregnant at the time of the interview, her boyfriend, her mother and her sister live with in the Madrid neighborhood of Entrevías. Happy, stroking her belly and dragging a shopping cart that will end up almost full, she enters through the door of the premises that Somos Tribu Mujeres, a pantry created in Vallecas, occupies the last Tuesday of each month with the sole purpose of offering products for menstruation and other toiletries to women who need it. "In our case we are three and with a very abundant flow, which is something that they take into account here. We cannot afford it financially, you do the math and it is very expensive...", she reflects.

"For many it's either eating or buying a pad," summarizes Ana, one of the women who is part of Somos Tribu Mujeres, which distributes panty liners, pads of different sizes or tampons, but also gel, shampoo, deodorant or razors. These women began collaborating with the food pantry that was launched in the neighborhood with the outbreak of the pandemic, but they soon realized that "these products were hardly donated" and that what little there was "were a type of very specific and very large compress that you couldn't give to many young girls," she says. They currently serve about 80 women each month.

In Spain, products for the period are taxed with a reduced VAT, that is, 10%, the same that is applied, for example, to garages and homes, or to art objects and collectibles. Compresses and tampons are excluded from those considered essential goods, to which a super-reduced VAT of 4% is applied, including medicines, school supplies or bread, fruit or milk. That the products for the period are equal to these is the eternal pending issue that never ends. Africa, who has come to the pantry with her four-year-old daughter and has another 18-year-old daughter, believes that it is "indispensable" that once and for all, the measure materializes.

But it seems that it will still have to wait. The VAT reduction to 4%, contemplated in the coalition government agreement, was incorporated into the General State Budget project for 2019 agreed by the PSOE and United We Can, but the accounts declined. The issue has been taken up again these days as a result of the new abortion law that the Government plans to approve next Tuesday. The rule contained the elimination of the tax at the proposal of Equality, but the differences with the Ministry of Finance have cooled the possibility that it will finally end up in the text. This despite the fact that the economic impact would be more than light: 2019 calculations estimated that the reduction to 4% meant that the state coffers would stop entering 18 million euros a year.

Rosa has been inside the premises on Pablo Neruda Avenue that Somos Tribu Mujeres uses as its headquarters for a while now. They not only offer products, they also give workshops, talks and offer a coffee with pastries to whoever wants to sit at the table. Rosa, who prefers not to use her real name because she has a protection order for being a victim of sexist violence, chats animatedly with her other classmates. "It's something natural, but it's stigmatized... You know of places that give diapers, food, household products... but what about pads? It seems as if the rule doesn't exist", she comments indignantly.

The VAT reduction, which some European countries around us such as France, Portugal or Belgium have already applied, is for Medina "a matter of social justice" that would be "a very symbolic step", but he believes that a step must be taken beyond. "Menstrual poverty is the tip of the iceberg, but behind it there are many other issues that if we don't address it is difficult for us to really tackle it," the expert emphasizes.

This is the path that plans to open the law that the Government wants to take to the Council of Ministers next Tuesday and that some other countries have already started. Scotland was the first in the world to offer free sanitary products to female students in schools, colleges and universities to fight period poverty. "In a country as rich as Scotland it is unacceptable that someone has to fight to buy sanitary products," said the Secretary for Local Government of the Executive, Aileen Campbell. The measure was promoted with a double objective: that no young woman "would see her education affected" for this reason, but also to contribute to a "more open conversation" about the rule.

Other countries, such as Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, have also addressed the issue of menstrual poverty as a broad issue that affects access to health and quality products but also menstrual education and stigmas.

Paloma Alma is the founder of Cyclo, a menstrual products company that began as a menstrual education project. Alma insists that addressing menstrual poverty should not only be about access to products in general, but about quality products. "Choosing one product or another has physical and health implications. There are tampons or compresses in supermarkets that contain toxic bleaches or perfumes that are even prohibited in other countries," she explains. Some of these products, on contact with mucous membranes, can cause itching, fungus, irritation, dryness or allergies.

And there comes the need to access, also, a good menstrual education. "If you don't have good information, you probably won't be able to know that some discomforts you have come from the products you are using. The price of using a poor quality tampon, but one that is cheap, later has an economic cost – ovules, creams, medical visits – and a health cost", continues Paloma Alma. Regarding good or bad quality, she denounces that even today companies are not obliged to specify all the components of their products.

In recent years, alternative sanitary products have become popular, such as the menstrual cup, menstrual panties or cloth pads. The cup is taxed with 10% VAT, while panties and cloth pads have a rate of 21%, because they are considered textile products. The solution, says Paloma Alma, is not to generalize the menstrual cup, a product that is very economical in terms of price and duration of use. Firstly, because it is not suitable for all women and, secondly, because menstrual hygiene goes hand in hand with women's general access to healthy and hygienic environments.

"I was giving a workshop in the Cañada Real and it is useless to donate cups just for the sake of it. Women live there who do not have drinking water and to whom I could not recommend that they use the cup. The products do not come by themselves. A complete menstrual education is needed , being able to know what is normal to happen to you and what is not, and access to hygiene measures. There may also be women for whom the cup is not an option for cultural reasons," says the businesswoman and expert in menstruation.

In Spain, some institutions and administrations have already launched measures against menstrual poverty in recent months. Last year, the University of Vigo became the first center to make pads and tampons available to students and staff. That same year, the Basque Country approved the first regional project to fight against menstrual poverty, the first step of which is a diagnosis. The Generalitat de Catalunya, for its part, announced that this 2022 it would launch a pilot test for the distribution of menstrual products in institutes to later extend it to all centers.

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