Period Poverty: Your Money or Your Dignity 

Did you know up until 2019 the Australian government taxed period products at the same rate as luxury goods? This meant there was a 10% tax on all period products, aptly called the ‘tampon tax’. Meanwhile, products like condoms, sunscreen, and lubricants were GST-free. Why? Because these goods were classified as medical necessities.  

When GST was first introduced in 2000, the then Minister for Health Dr Michael Wooldridge was asked about the public concerns that feminine hygiene products were not exempt from GST. His response was to compare period products to shaving cream – “[a]s a bloke, I’d like shaving cream exempt, but I’m not expecting it to be”. He went on to add that the reason condoms were GST-free was because they prevented illness.  

“I wasn’t aware that menstruation was an illness”. 

Wooldridge was trained as a medical doctor, yet he couldn’t fathom a medical need for period products. Unfortunately, this attitude towards menstruation and access to period products is not a thing of the past, and period poverty is a common circumstance for many Australians. 

You might be asking yourself, what exactly is period poverty? Very simply, it’s the term used to describe an inability to access period products, but it can also include not having access to toilets or washing facilities, or access to education about menstrual health. What makes period poverty such a complicated and serious issue are the consequences that this has on a person’s life and the options available to them.  

A 2019 study by Share the Dignity found almost 50% of respondents admitted to wearing their pad or tampon longer than the recommended time because they didn’t have enough products to get by. This can greatly increase your risk of developing toxic shock syndrome, which can cause fevers, vomiting, diarrhoea, or fainting. This same study also found that one in five people who menstruate were using items like toilet paper and socks because they couldn’t afford to purchase more products.  

On average, period products cost consumers around $20 per month, which adds up to almost $10,000 over the course of a person’s reproductive life. Of course, this figure can vary dramatically depending on how heavy your flow is, how many days you bleed or what products you prefer.  

While $20 a month doesn’t sound like a lot, it can greatly impact someone’s budget when they are already struggling to make ends meet. And since these products are essential and there are no suitable substitutes, brands can charge as much as they like because they know consumers have no choice but to buy their products.    

When someone is not able to afford to buy period products or able to access them for free, it can literally impact their ability to leave the house; this can affect their school or university attendance, ability to maintain a stable job and their confidence in themselves. 

The stigma associated with menstruation means even if free products are available in a public bathroom, the embarrassment of being seen taking a pad or tampon is often enough to put someone off actually accessing the products. Just providing products for free isn’t enough – people need to be able to feel like they aren’t going to be judged for using them. 

Adding to these complex issues are the environmental concerns of using disposable period products. The average person will use somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 pads or tampons in their lifetime. The non-compostable materials in these products can take up to 800 years to decompose, and the microplastics they produce pollute water supplies.  

Switching to reusable period products seems like the obvious solution, but one pair of period underwear typically costs anywhere between $20 and $40, and the average person would need at least two pairs per day. So, do you spend more money on a long-term solution, but have less money to make it through the month, or do you keep spending smaller amounts of money for single use products? 

The QUT Student Guild has implemented several initiatives to provide on-campus students with access to period products. In partnership with Share the Dignity, two vending machines have been installed in the Kelvin Grove and Gardens Point library bathrooms. The vending machines cost $25,000 (funded by SSAF) and come with a lifetime guarantee of donated products from Libra. The Guild also runs the Little Emergencies program, which distributes products at six different locations across each campus. 

While these initiatives are important, many students would have noticed that these vending machines and containers are typically empty. The products are restocked on a regular basis, which either means they are not being restocked often enough or the actual demand for products is much, much higher than the perceived demand.   

Student Guild Women’s Officer Sia Hills said students shouldn’t have to struggle to get access to basic necessities, and the rising cost of living has only added stress to an already stressful situation. 

“[Period] products and menstrual hygiene education are important and access to these are a fundamental right. This is one area that should not be overlooked.” 

Progress is also being made on the state government level. In June 2022, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced that all high school students would have access to free products like tampons and pads from this year onwards. The Queensland government has partnered with Share the Dignity to install vending machines dispensing period packs in all public school bathrooms around the state. This is great news for school students, but there is currently no similar plan in place to provide university students with the same access to these much-needed products.  

Currently, there are very few studies about how periods and period poverty affect university students, since most of the research is focused on high schoolers. A recent research study from The University of Sydney found that poor sanitation facilities made it difficult for students to manage their periods and led to fears about not being able to clean up properly. Anyone who has been to one of the bathrooms in the Kelvin Grove library over the weekend would understand this feeling; when the cubicle is so dirty you are debating whether to use it to urinate, you certainly don’t feel comfortable changing your tampon or washing your menstrual cup. 

What’s your experience?  

How does your period impact your life? Or what kind of impact does menstruating have in your life?  Do you ever find it challenging to buy period products? QUT lecturers Dr Ruth Knight and Dr Jannine Williams are inviting all staff and students to let them know, so they can learn more about how periods impact staff and students here at QUT. 

Dr Knight said free period products not only mean students can stay in class when they might otherwise have to go home or leave campus, but it also reduces the stigma that still surrounds periods.  

“I hope that our research into the topic will help us learn about the impact of periods on staff and students, and help us identify what further support is needed to give people with periods support and dignity.” 

If you would like to participate in the survey, click this link to find out more. It only takes about 10 minutes, and your answers are anonymous so they are strictly private and confidential. The survey closes on May 14th.  

Academics and doctors are increasingly recognising the mental and physical impacts menstruation can cause, but there is still a lot of work to do to ensure all Australians have equitable access to menstrual education and quality, affordable period products. By participating in studies like the one above and fighting against measures like the ‘tampon tax’, students can have their voice heard, help reduce the stigma around periods and create a world where it’s not shameful or embarrassing to admit you have your period. 

Celeste Muller
Celeste Muller

Celeste (she/her) is a Meanjin/Brisbane based writer and Editor at Glass Media. She has a Bachelor's degree in Design (Interior Design) and is currently studying Journalism and Economics at QUT.

Articles: 47

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