It should be incredible but it’s only too believable in the dysfunctional state we are in. Headlines in the news stir a moment of dislocation. Where exactly are we? What year is this?
Quotes from teachers, politicians, campaigners and teenage girls transport me back to a cold night in Edinburgh City Chambers. The remarkable Zimbabwean activist Thabitha Khumalo is holding us engrossed.
Thabitha (now a DMC MP for Bulawayo East) was then in the UK on a trade union funded tour to raise money and support for her campaign Dignity Period to secure safe supplies of sanitary towels for women in Zimbabwe. At a meeting organised by the students Labour group Ladies in Red we hear a story of poverty and the brutal oppression of Robert Mugabe. Thabitha has been beaten and imprisoned in her struggle for women’s rights.
Ordinary women cannot afford sanitary wear, we are using old pieces of cloth or newspapers. Consequently, we’re suffering the loss of our dignity and serious infections, in some cases leading to infertility. Thabitha Khumalo
That was Zimbabwe 2006
Now in front of me there are news reports of teenage girls missing school each month because their families cannot afford tampons or sanitary towels. A charity, Freedom4girls has launched an appeal to fund research into the issue.
Teenagers and young girls are being forced to wrap or stuff toilet paper down their knickers… The cost of sanitary products is just too much for some girls and their families, and it’s leading to missing school and it’s putting their health at risk. Hayley Smith, founder of Flow Aid
This is UK 2017
Pause for a moment to note that Flow Aid is a campaign working to provide free sanitary products to the homeless and Freedom4girls was set up to provide sanitary products to women and girls in Kenya. There’s that sense of dislocation again, a bizarre déjà vu echo of the 1980s when Blue Peter began to raise money for those in need in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain alongside their more customary appeals for victims of famine and conflict in what we then called the Third World.
There were cruel twists to the story in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. In 2006 the economy was in such dire distress the manufacturers of sanitary products had left the country. An appeal for help produced a generous lorry load of sanitary towels from South Africa but Mugabe refused to let them into the country.
In Britain 2017 there is freely expressed concern. No beatings or imprisonment for women’s rights campaigners. A petition calls for free sanitary wear to be provided. A Bill about to go through the Scottish parliament could make it a requirement for schools to provide pads and tampons. Facebook appeals ask for donations of tampons so food banks can discreetly add supplies to boxes in case families are too embarrassed to ask for such intimate support. As the story grows, the UK government promises to think carefully about free sanitary wear for girls from low income families.
Free for all?
Other questions arise. Some are calling for sanitary wear to be free for all women. If contraception is available on the NHS why not monthly pads and tampons?
Or perhaps it’s a marketing opportunity for Lil-lets and Tampax – provide the product free to schools and inherit customers for the rest of their menstruating lives. After all, hotels and bars sometimes provide clients with such bare necessities cleverly packaged – I have seen bowls of brightly coloured tampons laid out lavishly like pick-n-mix sweets on wash-stands in the Ladies.
But in all the sound and justifiable fury of this scandal there is one crude fact. The cause of the problem is poverty, and it should shame and embarrass UK 2017, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Whether on welfare or in work too many people no longer earn enough to pay for fundamental essentials of life. The cost is Dignity. Period.
Featured image: A detail from a graffiti mural by street artist Matt Bloomer, which adorns the smoking area outside the Arches on Midland Lane, Glasgow. Image The Arches published under Creative Commons CC-By-2.0