Period Poverty: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— the average woman, or anyone who experiences periods, will have 507 periods from age 12 to 51, for roughly 39 years of her life;

— in Ireland, sanitary products can cost from €2 to €6 per pack, with the average pack containing 10 to 15 pads or tampons, and that a 12 pack of pain relief tablets costs between €6 and €10;

— most women and girls will have 13 periods a year, with some using up to 22 tampons and/or towels per cycle leading to an estimated annual cost of €208 for sanitary products and pain relief, costing €8,100 over a lifetime;

— access to affordable sanitary products and menstrual education should be viewed in a human rights context, as according to the World Health Organisation’s constitution ‘…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being’;

— the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council Resolution 33/10 on 29th September, 2016 states that lack of menstrual health management and stigma associated with menstruation both have a negative impact on gender equality and women’s and girls’ enjoyment of human rights, including the right to education and the right to health;

— the UN Committee on Rights of the Child’s General comment No. 20 (2016) on implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence has stated that ‘All adolescents should have access to free, confidential, adolescent-responsive and non-discriminatory sexual and reproductive health services, information and education… [including on] menstrual hygiene’;

— according to a survey of more than 1,100 young girls and women aged between 12 and 19 years by Plan International Ireland, nearly 50 per cent of Irish teenage girls find it difficult to afford sanitary products;

— some 109 of the young women who participated in the survey said they were forced to use a ‘less suitable sanitary product’ because of the high monthly cost involved;

— nearly 60 per cent, or one in two, of young women and girls said school does not inform them adequately about periods;

— six out of ten young women reported feeling shame and embarrassment about their period, 61 per cent miss school on their period and more than 80 per cent said they did not feel comfortable talking about their periods with their father or a teacher; and

— nearly 70 per cent of young women take some form of pain relief during menstruation;

acknowledges that:

— tampons and sanitary towels are not subject to Value Added Tax (VAT) in Ireland, which has a zero rate treatment on women’s sanitary products, but new period products that may better suit some women, girls and the environment, are still taxed at the highest rate of tax at 23 per cent;

— due to the high cost of these products women and girls in period poverty are resorting to unsuitable options such as newspaper, toilet paper or unwashed clothing;

— girls and young women who suffer shame and embarrassment surrounding their period are more likely to use unsuitable options rather than approach family members or their teacher;

— in September 2018, Dublin City Council announced it will provide free sanitary products in its buildings, such as community centres, swimming pools and libraries;

— the advances being made in other countries, such as the success of a six month pilot in Aberdeen to provide free products in all schools funded by the Scottish Government;

and

— the work of organisations such as Plan International Ireland and The Homeless Period to alleviate the stress and financial burden placed on women and girls due to period poverty; and

calls on the Government to:

— provide a range of free, adequate, safe and suitable sanitary products and comprehensive, objective menstrual education information distributed through all public buildings, including schools, universities, direct provision centres, refuges, homeless services, Garda stations, hospitals, maternity hospitals, prisons, detention centres and rehabilitation centres so as to tackle period poverty and de-stigmatise and normalise menstruation;

— ensure all menstrual products available in Ireland are safe, through regulation and quality checks;

— ensure young women, girls and people of other genders can learn about their periods and menstrual hygiene in a normalising and safe environment, including online by providing a State-run website with objective information, and ensure girls, boys and people of other genders have access to education about menstruation integrated into the school curriculum;

— ensure improved access to hygienic facilities and sanitary products that are affordable and meet individual needs;

— work with other countries across the European Union to remove VAT on all sanitary products, including healthy and environmentally-friendly sanitary products such as cups and period-proof underwear; and

— prioritise the issue of menstrual equity for girls and children’s rights as central to Irish Aid’s work overseas in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, and Goal 6 which calls for universal and equitable access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.

I am sharing time with the Deputy Chairperson of the Oireachtas Women's Parliamentary Caucus, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy.

Is onóir í dom an rún seo a mholadh ar son chácas na mban san Oireachtas. Lá stairiúil is ea an lá seo do Dháil Éireann, agus mná ar fud an speictream polaitiúil ag teacht le chéile ar an rún ar bhochtanas míostraithe. Táim bródúil go bhfuil cácas na mban ag obair chun an cheist seo a shoiléiriú tríd an rún seo a mholadh. Agus muid ag obair le chéile agus ag cur polaitíocht na bpáirtithe ar leataobh, táimid ábalta éifeacht dhearfach a bhaint amach do mhná agus cailíní na tíre seo. Níl sa rún seo ach tús le cácas na mban san Oireachtas. Tá sé ar intinn againn níos mó reachtaíochta a chur chun cinn amach anseo chun dul i ngleic le réimse leathan ábhar a bhaineann le mná. Is iomaí agus is coimpléascaí na bacanna ar chomhionnanas a bhaint amach. Le chéile, mar mhná, is fórsa éifeachtach muid chun athruithe dearfacha a bhaint amach.

According to research conducted by Plan International Ireland, 50% of women between the ages of 12 and 19 struggle to afford sanitary products. Can one imagine that roughly half of young women in Ireland cannot afford a basic product? This seems like an issue about which we should all be talking if not shouting. It might surprise some Members that up until this moment the word "menstruation" has appeared only 27 times on the Oireachtas records. That record will certainly be broken this evening. Something that affects roughly 50% of the teenage and adult population has been mentioned fewer than 30 times in our national Parliament since the foundation of our State. When one delves into those records, one will quickly find that periods are almost entirely spoken about in a context of fertility rather than in terms of an individual's health and well-being. This is worrying because period poverty is a real issue for women in Ireland. It is having a negative impact on their education, well-being and quality of life. Accordingly, it and must be spoken about and addressed in those terms.

It is estimated that Irish women and girls spend an average of €132 every year on tampons and sanitary towels. For women, girls and those experiencing periods who are homeless, in direct provision or in full-time education, this is a substantial cost. Many often have to resort to cheap, unsafe products or crude alternatives. The monthly burden of purchasing sanitary products falls on approximately half the population by virtue of their biology. This is both an issue of equality and of dignity.

This motion will be a significant move in addressing the issue of period poverty and bringing further attention to this issue, building on a growing movement across Ireland and the world. Last year, on foot of a motion tabled by Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, Dublin City Council announced that it would provide free sanitary products in its buildings. The Homeless Period Ireland organisation, directed brilliantly by Claire Hunt, now has 30 drop-off points for people to donate sanitary products to homeless women.

Students across Ireland have been working to address period poverty in their schools. Just yesterday, students from St. Bricin's in Cavan and Eureka secondary school in Meath came to a briefing relating to this motion in Leinster House. They spoke about the work they are doing through their Young Social Innovators projects and the real impact it is having for students in their schools.

Across the water, the Scottish Government is taking action to fight period poverty. It has recently become the first Government in the world to pledge to provide free sanitary products to all pupils and students in its schools, colleges and universities.

Members of Dáil Éireann need to show leadership on this issue. Our caucus motion this evening is calling for the provision of a range of free sanitary products, including environmentally friendly products in all public buildings, from schools and universities to direct provision centres, refuges, hospitals and prisons as a way to tackle period poverty.

Our call does not end at providing free sanitary products. We are also calling for objective menstrual education information to be available in all public buildings. We seek tighter regulation and quality checks of menstrual products, for Ireland to work at an EU wide level to remove VAT on products, particularly healthy and environmentally-friendly ones, and to prioritise the issue of menstrual equity in Irish Aid’s work overseas. Crucially, we are calling for comprehensive and normalising education on periods in schools and to open up the discussion on periods to everyone.

Normalising periods and ensuring objective education is incredibly important. The lack of conversation in the Oireachtas on menstruation mirrors a societal silence on the issue. Six out of ten young women surveyed by Plan International Ireland said that they feel shame and embarrassment about their period; shame and embarrassment about something so ordinary and natural.

The stigma surrounding periods and the cost of period products have very real consequences. Plan International Ireland’s survey found that 61% of Irish girls have missed school because of their period. If 61% of students said they had missed school because of some sort of virus it would be a national emergency. No student should have to miss school because of stigma or because they cannot afford sanitary products. Education is a basic human right and we must do everything we can to ensure that right is not jeopardised. We need to remove the taboo around discussing menstruation. No woman should ever feel burdened with unnecessary stress, embarrassment or anxiety every month because of their gender or financial circumstances.

We need to be able speak openly about periods so that we can learn about the many and complex issues that people face when on their periods, and address those issues. For instance, have Members ever thought about where sanitary product dispensers are placed? Usually they are found in non-wheelchair accessible women’s bathrooms, positioned at about 5 ft. from the ground. This makes them inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, to little people and to trans men.

When we shroud issues in stigma, when we fail to have open conversation, we often end up further marginalising whole sections of society. I hope that when this motion passes, that these conversations are had and that inclusive accessibility to free products is ensured across the country.

We also need to be able to be assured of the safety of the products we use, which is why this motion is calling for better regulation of sanitary products. Last week, Lynn Boylan, MEP, highlighted that the responsibility of ensuring the safety of these products rests with the manufacturers. These are health products so their safety should be ensured through proper State-led regulation.

Opening up the conversation on periods, as well as providing free and safe sanitary products, will help to bring greater dignity and well-being to women and girls. When people do not feel able to talk openly about their concerns, we end up with people quietly suffering. I would like to emphasise that it is not just the women who need to have this conversation. Of 158 Deputies, only 35 women have been elected to the Dáil and I am disappointed so few men have decided to attend the debate this evening, because this is an issue about which we need to educate our fathers, sons and brothers. While the caucus has ensured that the Dáil has this conversation tonight, and we are grateful that we got Government time for this motion, I cannot emphasise enough that we need more than conversation. It is over to the Government to take the necessary action outlined in our motion to put an end to period poverty. One action it can easily take is to allocate funding in the next budget for the provision of free sanitary products in all public buildings.

I am proud of the work the Women’s Caucus has done to shed light on this issue by bringing forward this motion. While the Women’s Caucus enjoys the support of the vast majority of women Members of the Oireachtas, and there have been so many valuable contributions to it by former female Members, I am also aware there are women who are not active members of it, or who chose not to be in it at all, who have co-signed this motion and will speak in support of it tonight. I acknowledge them and thank them for their support which has led to all women Members of the Dáil uniting today on this motion. In doing so, I recognise the fact that democracy in the form of Dáil elections has repeatedly returned women of different viewpoints and different political backgrounds to this House. Often, we disagree more than we agree and that is why today is a glimpse of, and shines a light on, what can be achieved through this dynamic, of women working together, casting aside party political differences, which they genuinely and passionately hold, and exploring options of where we can be a force of positive change and action together.

I thank those who helped bring this motion to the Dáil today. Míle buíochas to Sinead Mercier who drafted the motion with invaluable input from Claire Hunt of Homeless Period Ireland and the team at Plan International Ireland. I thank my own team, Una Power, Donal Swan, Anna Conlan, Catherine O’Keeffe and Linda Wilson, who went above and beyond in their work on this motion. I would also like to acknowledge the Senators from our caucus who have attended tonight’s debate and will be debating this motion in the Seanad on 27 March. I also thank Laura Harmon from the National Women's Council of Ireland who acts as the secretariat for our caucus.

I especially welcome and thank all the visitors in the Gallery this evening, who represent activists, academics and the many organisations and NGOs which do so much to highlight not only this issue but the many issues of inequality and discrimination facing women across the world. I also thank the Ceann Comhairle for his unwavering support of the Women’s Caucus.

I take the opportunity as chair of the caucus to state that tonight’s motion is just the beginning for the Oireachtas Women’s Caucus. We intend to bring forward further legislation in the future to tackle effectively a diverse range of women’s issues which need attention. Of course, legislative change is only one facet of the caucus’s work. Since it was established, a mere 18 months ago, we have been making our voices heard on a range of issues. From the forthcoming survey on harassment, bullying and sexual harassment in Leinster House, which the caucus requested and insisted would include every single person who works in Leinster House, to ensuring consultation on the women in the home referendum, to working with female parliamentarians globally by founding and hosting the International Congress of Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses, we are putting women to front and centre of political decision making. That is where we belong.

The barriers to equality, both in Ireland and abroad, are many and complex. Together as women we are an effective force for positive change.

I am glad to address this important matter as vice chair of the Oireachtas Women’s Caucus today and I want to take the opportunity to commend my cross-party colleagues on their work on this issue. I also welcome the visitors in the Gallery this evening.

Many people are uncomfortable talking about menstruation, many people do not want to talk about it and many people will dismiss the need for this motion but that does not mean we should not raise this issue.

We women are best qualified to talk about menstruation because it is a normal part of life for us. Why should we be embarrassed or ashamed? Why should we buy into advertisers negative stereotyping of menstruation?

For the majority of us, period poverty is not an issue. In fact, the term is new to many people, including me. However, closer inspection of the evidence provided by Plan International Ireland and Homeless Period Ireland demonstrates that it is a matter that needs urgent action. It is primarily about the quality of life of our women and girls. It is not only an issue for other countries, as many of us may have believed in the past, but for Ireland also.

Women's health has been viewed through a peculiar prism over the years. Menstruation happens all over the planet, in every country every day, yet it is almost taboo to discuss it. Why this should be so is curious. It might be because the female reproductive system has been viewed as unclean in some cultures, including our own. Not many years ago in this country, women who delivered a child were seen as unclean and needed to be churched before they could feed their family or bake bread. I suppose it is no surprise, therefore, that menstruation is viewed in the same light despite the fact that it is one of the three ways that the human female body excretes waste. It is a normal bodily function in which we have no choice, just as we have no choice in urination or defecation. However, the fact is that the only sanitary product provided for free in most bathrooms across the world is toilet paper. Perhaps if men menstruated, things would be different.

There are many challenges being experienced by women of all ages in managing their health and hygiene on a monthly basis, even if they can afford sanitary products. However, I will focus first on the most marginalised in society. Homeless women and women in direct provision are particularly vulnerable. Imagine being homeless and all of the daily challenges that brings. Then imagine being a homeless menstruating woman and having to manage one's monthly period on top of that. Think of girls and women in direct provision where evidence is emerging that the provision of sanitary products, where available, is patchy. In some cases, there are reports that the products provided are substandard. This has to change.

I had the privilege of meeting Ms Claire Hunt, the founder of Homeless Period Ireland, yesterday at our audiovisual room briefing. I acknowledge her initiative and drive not only in identifying the need of these vulnerable women but in deciding to do something about it. Donated feminine hygiene products are brought by volunteers to direct provision centres, homeless outreach centres and women's refuges. A donation station has been set up here in the Leinster House coffee dock, which is definitely a first for this campus.

I acknowledge also the excellent work of Plan International Ireland, which is a child centred community development organisation. The evidence it has provided shows that 43% of girls did not know what to do when their period first started; 15% did not even know what was happening to them; 50% of girls between the ages of 12 and 19 years find it difficult to afford sanitary products; and 61% have missed school because of their period. The survey also highlighted the lack of information available to them on what is happening to their bodies on starting menstruation and the fact that they need pain relief at some stage, which adds to the financial burden. At our briefing yesterday, a social worker based at the national maternity hospital confirmed that many new mothers approach her to provide sanitary products for them due to the cost.

If this motion is successful, as I know it will be, and acted upon, free sanitary products will be provided in all public buildings such as schools, universities, direct provision centres, refuges, homeless services, Garda stations, hospitals, maternity hospitals, prisons, detention centres and rehabilitation centres. I am optimistic that other buildings in receipt of public funding will follow suit, including Pobal funded projects in swimming pools, community halls, centres and theatres.

Another vital element of this motion is to ensure that menstrual education is provided for boys and girls as well as their parents to tackle the lack of accurate and trustworthy information on menstruation. Learning about what is and is not normal is crucial. It is vital, for example, to understand the symptoms of endometriosis which, I understand, affects about 10% of menstruating women.

An interesting fact provided by AkiDwA is that it is normal for girls from some African countries to begin menstruation as young as 7 or 8 years of age. As many of them are now living here and attending school, this needs to be taken into account in assisting our primary schools to deal with this fact. Our teachers are under considerable pressure in the rapidly changing digital age and perhaps a solution might be to have the HSE develop and deliver a special menstrual education programme. The Minister for Health should consider this possibility under the Healthy Ireland framework, which takes a whole-of-Government and whole-of-society approach. Whatever is decided upon, it should most certainly be separated from sex education in schools.

It is interesting that some second level schools are encouraging their students to develop projects on the subject. Children from two schools, St. Bricin's College in County Cavan and Eureka Secondary School in County Meath, were present at our briefing yesterday. They articulated the findings of their research, which was most revealing about shame and embarrassment in having periods, difficulties in discussing their period with parents or teachers and the cost to low-income families. Despite their positive opportunity to conduct this research in their schools, there is some evidence that boards of management are preventing such projects being undertaken in schools. We have an uphill battle ahead to normalise what is a normal bodily function for half of our population.

Other countries have been leading the way, prompted largely by young activists. They include Scotland, which was referred to earlier, and the NHS in Wales. New York City Council and Dublin are other examples. I pay special tribute to Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, who deserves great credit for achieving support for her initiative on Dublin City Council.

We are getting some things right in that there is 0% VAT on most traditional sanitary products. However, it is hard to believe that the 23% VAT rate is levied on cups, period underwear and reusable pads. These items are not luxuries, but necessities to our girls and women. This must be reviewed during budget considerations.

I am sorry if I am boring the two gentlemen who are having a completely separate conversation while I am trying to make a point here. It is not acceptable or fair that they are engaged in a conversation when they should be paying attention to proceedings.

Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's time is up.

Deputy Corcoran Kennedy is being disingenuous. The Deputy was asking about his speaking slot.

He was there a good while.

The materials that are used in menstrual products also need to be examined and should move to a more sustainable and safer model, as plastics and chemicals are not only bad for women but also bad for the environment.

Earlier today, the women's caucus held a photocall and press conference on the plinth to promote the motion. Four female journalists were in attendance. Disappointingly, not one male journalist saw fit to attend and not one television station, including the State broadcaster, saw fit to cover the matter.

We certainly have an uphill battle ahead to have this important issue discussed more widely when those responsible for covering news stories do not consider this issue important enough to turn up. This is my last sentence and I beg the Acting Chairman's indulgence on this. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, has turned up. We are relying on him to progress this motion on behalf of the women of Ireland, so no pressure.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht an dushláin sin.

I thank the women's caucus for highlighting this issue of period poverty and for the opportunity today to discuss an issue which, I am sure we all agree, deserves a higher level of focus and attention in our society. The issue of "period poverty", which is defined as the inability to afford female sanitary products, is an internationally recognised health and social issue. It has significant potential consequences for individual women and girls, in terms of exclusion during menstruation from educational, employment, recreational or social settings and opportunities. There are wider societal costs from such recurrent absenteeism from school or work.

The effects of period poverty on mental and psychosocial well-being are a significant concern, one which is reflected in surveys such as that carried out by the NGO, Plan Ireland International. It reported high levels of feelings of shame and embarrassment about periods and period management. The cumulative effects may be particularly significant for teenage girls, particularly in terms of absenteeism from education. There are also potential impacts on physical health. These include an increased risk of infection, due to the inability to change sanitary products at recommended intervals or from using inappropriately improvised products and materials.

Issues around periods and the impact of period poverty may also be relevant in the context of adolescent girls maintaining the recommended levels of participation in sports and physical activity, which is important for their overall health and well-being. Participation in sport among teenage girls is lower than that of boys of the same age. This is an area of focus under the national physical activity plan and the national sports policy.

The cost of managing periods, in terms of sanitary products and pain relief, has been estimated at more than €200 per annum for women. This is a recurrent annual cost for women over several decades. However, as recent surveys and media coverage have highlighted, period poverty and the anxiety that accompanies it impact disproportionately on vulnerable groups, including the homeless, teenage girls and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

A number of other jurisdictions, including the UK, have recently started to examine measures to address period poverty. In recent years Canada, some US states and India have removed goods and services taxes, the equivalent of VAT, from sanitary products. Accordingly, the Department has given this matter some recent consideration. As a starting point, before budget 2019 my colleague, the Minister for Health, wrote to the Minister for Finance about taxation rates that apply to sanitary products. We therefore understand that tampons and sanitary towels are subject to 0% VAT. As part of VAT harmonisation agreements reached with the EU in the 1990s, the Irish 0% VAT rate on these items at that time was retained. However, newer products are subject to 23% VAT and my understanding is that European Union legislation does not currently permit the use of 0% VAT rates for items not covered by the original exemption.

There also have been initiatives and more highlighting of the issue in Ireland in recent times, including recent consideration by some local authorities of free sanitary product provision in public buildings, facilities and locations, including community centres. For example, Dublin City Council passed a resolution concerning period poverty last year and it has advised that it is running a pilot scheme to provide free sanitary products in four local recreation centres and this has been well received by users. If successful, the intention is to expand the scheme and I take this opportunity to commend the good work on this initiative.

Period poverty, in addition to its adverse effects on inclusion and on health and well-being, is also an equality and equity concern. The financial cost associated with obtaining sanitary products contributes to gender inequality, while varying capacity to afford sanitary products creates inequity among women and girls in Ireland. The issue is very relevant to the ongoing cross-Government work to implement the national womens' and girls' strategy, which aims to advance the rights of women and girls and to enable their full participation in Irish society. Under this important strategy, my Department is developing a women’s health action plan in collaboration with the HSE and the National Women’s Council of Ireland, as well as progressing relevant health policies with an impact on women’s health. We are also participants in the wider implementation oversight committee led by the Department of Justice and Equality.

Tackling this issue of period poverty comprehensively is likely to require a multidisciplinary response from across government. Potential measures to mitigate this issue may include provision of sanitary products free at point of access to vulnerable cohorts, such as school and university students, those in direct provision and socio-economically disadvantaged individuals. Much of this would fall outside the remit of the Department of Health. It may also include additional measures to reduce stigma and ensure all women and girls have the necessary information to manage their periods and how they impact on their health and well-being. This is therefore a matter that would at a minimum require significant input from the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Justice and Equality, as well as local authorities and other partners, in addition to the Department of Health. However, I can confirm that we would be happy to participate in any cross-departmental discussion on this topic and on developing measures to mitigate it. I look forward to hearing the contributions.

As the Minister has not taken his full allocation of time, I am sure this side of the House would be happy to take it if we can get it. I am happy to share time with my colleague, Deputy Billy Kelleher.

It is great to be part of this historic day as the women's caucus - women from all parties and none - has come together to bring forward this motion for the sake of girls and women in Ireland. I pay tribute to the chairperson of the caucus, Deputy Catherine Martin, and to Ms Una Power and Mr. Donal Swan in her office, for the leadership and support they have given. I also pay tribute to the deputy chairperson, Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and all the women involved, including former female Members of this House and the Seanad.

There are 1.8 billion women around the world who menstruate, and the average woman will have 507 periods from age 12 to age 51, amounting to 39 years of her life. Women face a financial burden throughout the course of their lives dealing with this monthly reality. An estimated annual cost is €208, leading to a lifetime cost of €8,100. That is the lower end of the scale and we must recognise that for some, this is a prohibitive cost associated with menstruation. Some women struggle to pay for sanitary products on a monthly basis It is unacceptable that any woman or girl would be unable to access sanitary products due to period poverty or not being able to buy these essential products.

Stark figures released last summer reveal that almost 50% of teenage girls in Ireland struggle to afford monthly sanitary products and it is not unheard of that young women may have no choice but to go without sanitary products to make ends meet. Some households' weekly budget cannot stretch far enough to afford these products; they are luxuries not certainties for too many households. Given the price of rent, the cost of student fees and general living expenses, college students too are running an exceptionally tight budget. It goes without saying that women living in homelessness and in direct provision have severely limited access to these products.

Periods are an entirely normal part of life for every woman worldwide. Both the United Nations and the leading non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly recognised menstrual hygiene as a human right. Irrespective of income, background or circumstance, every woman should have equal access to sanitary products in a discreet and dignified way. No woman should be left unable to manage her period. This is a matter of promoting and maintaining public health and an important conversation that must be had, both here in the Dáil and Seanad and on the streets, in communities, in homes and in schools.

Before researching the matter, we might have assumed that period poverty affects only women in other countries. We know that other countries have serious issues around women and menstruation. For example, women can be banned from temples in India when menstruating and in Zambia, menstruating women are not supposed to cook or touch certain foods. In Nepal, during a period women are sent to sleep in small menstrual huts where there is no heat or electricity. In Kenya, motorbike boda boda drivers were found to be trading sexual favours in return for sanitary products, taking advantage of vulnerable young schoolgirls. However, the grim reality is that women in Ireland suffer from stigma and shame around menstruation and a substantial number of women in Ireland are unable to afford the products they need, as I mentioned. The women's caucus therefore is absolutely united in our determination to alleviate the period poverty suffered by a substantial number of Irish women every month.

I have mentioned the Plan International study, which indicates that more than one in ten girls has had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues and 61% of girls are too embarrassed to talk about their period, with the same number missing school as a direct result of menstruation. Aside from financial reasons, there are also social and cultural reasons these products may not be available at home. It is not our job to question why people need these donations but we must focus on the fact that everyone deserves equal access to period products, whatever the situation. I particularly refer to homeless women, those who are in direct provision and the women and girls in full-time education.

The UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/10 states that the lack of menstrual health management and stigma associated with menstruation both have a negative impact on gender equality and womens' and girls' enjoyment of human rights, including the right to education and the right to health. The Minister of State did not give a full commitment but today we are calling on the Government to provide comprehensive, objective menstrual education and information to normalise menstruation. We are calling on the Government to provide free, adequate, safe and suitable sanitary products that are environmentally friendly for the 50% of the population for whom menstruation is an unavoidable reality of life.

Internationally, efforts are being made to address the issue. There are examples in Kenya, Kerala in southern India, Scotland and the broader UK and, as we heard, through Dublin City Council, which is very positive.

Forty years ago, the feminist Gloria Steinem talked about what the world would look like if men were the ones who menstruated. I venture that things would be very different because period poverty is just another hurdle for women to overcome in a society that is still dominated by gendered inequalities. It was Ms Steinem who stated that the first resistance to social change is to say that it is not necessary. If we are serious about gender equality and reproductive rights, we must recognise the necessity of solving period poverty in order to afford females the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being, as laid out in the constitution of the World Health Organization. Like my colleagues, I pay tribute to Plan International and Claire Hunt from Homeless Period Ireland. There is an area in the coffee dock in LH2000 where we are collecting sanitary products. It is great to see so many there already. It will be open until tomorrow evening and everybody is welcome to place some products there for us to bring to some of the homeless hubs where they are needed.

I congratulate the Oireachtas Women's Parliamentary Caucus on bringing this matter to the floor of the Dáil. It is about normalising what is normal in the sense that what we are taking about is something that happens every day in houses across this country and the world. At the same time, it is a taboo issue in many cultures. Very often, it is an uncomfortable issue for people to discuss. The reason I am anxious to speak about is in the context of young girls who are just coming into puberty and experiencing periods for the first time and the fact that, very often, the education relating to that is not what it should be both in terms of periods themselves and sexual health and reproduction. It is an area where we have consistently fallen down. Even in this country, there is a lack of awareness of women's reproductive rights and equality in that area and menstruation and puberty. It is an issue that is not discussed openly. I could sense that even in the context of the discussions on the eighth amendment. When one talks about issues such as this, there is very much a sense that they are "underground" issues for many people. They just do not want to discuss them. From that point of view, it is a very welcome debate and something for which we should push.

Regarding the practicalities, we must accept that there is poverty in this country. Anything that diminishes the ability of a woman or young girl to access sanitary products or interferes with her reproductive health is something we must address. Councillor Rebecca Moynihan of Dublin City Council and many others have been campaigning to ensure sanitary products are available for free in public buildings and schools along with education. This campaign should be encouraged and supported at every opportunity. That is something for which we should campaign, both as individual political parties and in the context of the caucus.

There is a broader issue. We have spoken here about female genital mutilation and many other issues where we must start undermining and exposing the taboos regarding women's health, reproductive rights and menstruation. I congratulate the Oireachtas Women's Parliamentary Caucus. Hopefully, the Government will be able to embrace this motion and provide free sanitary products in public buildings, particularly schools, along with education.

I welcome this motion and, in particular, recent moves by Dublin City Council and South Dublin County Council to roll out free sanitary products in their buildings. I wish to highlight the issue of period poverty among those in direct provision centres. In November, the Minister for Justice and Equality told my colleague, Deputy Adams, in a response to a parliamentary question that the independent living model would be rolled out across direct provision centres. That model is a points-based system on access to toiletries and other products that would be based on family composition and need. The Minister stated that supplies of women's sanitary products would be made available as required for those centres that did not yet have this model and that the cost would be borne by the Department. As far as know, that has still not happened. There are women who receive only €38.30 a week. Obviously, they are not in a position to work, so they have to use up a significant chunk of that weekly allowance on sanitary products. That is wrong so I welcome the call in this motion for these products be made free in direct provision centres. I urge the Minister to ensure that this is rolled out immediately.

It is a reality that women who are experiencing homelessness are also highly likely to experience period poverty. Some great work is being done by the Homeless Period Ireland campaign to ensure that sanitary products are available across many homeless services. Steps are also being taken by local councils - and via this motion - to ensure that those experiencing homelessness will have access to these essential products. In the North, women's sanitary products are still taxed. This is what is referred to as the tampon tax. That tax is set by London and Sinn Féin has repeatedly called for it to be scrapped. This campaign is in progress in the North. Derry City and Strabane District Council has also moved to make sanitary products available free of charge in council-run community and sporting facilities.

I also welcome the elements of the motion that call for a focus on education. I acknowledge and commend the call in the motion for information on periods to be integrated into education and to ensure that both boys and girls are educated on this issue. In the Plan International survey, it is reported that almost 60% of young women stated that they do not find classes at school on periods helpful. This is a really high figure. It is extremely surprising that 60% of young women do not find the classes helpful. The survey also indicates that six out of ten young women often report feeling shame and embarrassment about their periods. The stigma in respect of this topic needs to be done away with. It is incredible that in 2019 there is still a taboo about discussing an issue like women's periods.

I want to broaden this discussion out because there is a much larger problem here in terms of poverty faced by women. There are women on low wages, particularly in professions such as childcare in which the majority of staff are female. The report by the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul earlier this month indicates that one in five lone parents - again, mainly women - is living below the poverty line. In February, I visited a local food bank run by Crosscare. I am sure everybody in the House will agree that this organisation does brilliant work. One of the volunteers informed me that demand for basic essentials has increased in recent months. So despite economic growth, it is clear that many in our communities are still struggling.

I welcome the motion. It is a small step in the right direction but the reality is that period poverty exists because poverty exists. We will not be able to deal with this issue in isolation. We need to tackle the root causes of poverty in society, namely, low wages, lack of childcare, lack of social supports for lone parents and lack of affordable housing. It is through tackling those root causes that issues such as this will be tackled as well.

I am sharing time with Deputy Sherlock.

Tá áthas orm m'ainm a chur faoin rún seo ó gCácas na mBan. Tá áthas orm freisin go bhfuil sé á phlé sa Dáil inniu. This is very much a cross-party motion, which is very welcome. As a member of the Women's Caucus, I thank in particular our chair and deputy chair for introducing the debate, but also those who have given us support, many of whom are in the Chamber listening to the debate. I pay particular tribute to Plan International Ireland and Homeless Period Ireland. Claire Hunt is in the Gallery. She is pretty much a one-man operation.

Both organisations are growing in support right across the country and doing terrific work.

No one chooses to menstruate. Those who are struggling financially are facing a cost for looking after their essential health. They should never be forced into a situation in which they need to choose between sanitary products and other basic needs. Others have referred to the fact that this is an issue for many women and girls in our country. Plan International Ireland has given us a number of statistics. According to one, nearly 50% of Irish teenage girls - Plan International Ireland surveyed girls between the ages of 12 and 19 - find it difficult to afford sanitary products. This is a very stark fact. It is important we put these facts on the floor of our Parliament, that we talk about them not just in rooms where women gather, but also in our national Parliament. It is also a fact that in many other countries the situation is even starker. In some cultures, girls actually drop out of school as soon as they start menstruating. In others countries, girls miss a significant number of school days when they have their period. However, this is also a real issue in our country and one we need to deal with. I will come back to this point before I finish, when I turn to the Minister of State's contribution. I also pay tribute to the Labour Party councillor, Rebecca Moynihan, who was pretty much a pioneer in this area. We are all now dealing with the issue in our Parliament, but Ms Moynihan very much pioneered it on Dublin City Council. A number of other councils around the country are now, we hope, taking up the mantle and providing free sanitary products in their public buildings. We need to develop that here in the Parliament.

I will now go straight to the Minister of State's contribution. I welcome the fact that he said that from his Department's perspective, he is willing to take action. He referred to a number of other relevant Government Departments, including the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Justice and Equality. I now urge the Minister of State to initiate cross-Government action to ensure we get a result on this because what we want to achieve from this debate is not just the highlighting of the issues, but also a result. I invite the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, as the Minister of State present, to do that.

I also welcome the fact that there are a number of men in the Chamber. I threw out a bit of a challenge in the previous debate, in which I happened to be the only woman, and for which there were 12 men in the Chamber talking about insurance. At least some of those men are in the Chamber now, which I welcome because we must ensure that men realise that this is a national issue and an issue for everyone, not just a women's issue. It is about poverty, participation and a very normal bodily function for half the population, and it needs to be embraced. I participated in one of the collection points last Friday for International Women's Day with my colleague, Anne Cronin. We were collecting for women in homeless accommodation and women in direct provision. We specifically asked men to go to the supermarket or wherever else and buy sanitary products and actually realise how much they cost. A number of men did so. I really want to highlight this as a men's issue as well as a women's issue.

We want to achieve a result in a number of areas. One is highlighting the issue here today while another is getting a response from Government. I refer in particular to the regulation of products, information and education in our schools and the VAT issue. While the latter was addressed in respect of some products back in the 1990s, some products are still very highly VAT-rated. While the Minister said the 23% rate is a matter of EU regulation, I hope Ireland will again show leadership in this regard.

In the context of this being a very much cross-party motion, I want to acknowledge one former Member of the House, Fiona O'Malley. I remember her campaigning to get the VAT rate on condoms reduced, which happened back in the 1990s. We should acknowledge people who have ploughed a fairly lonely furrow at times. I specifically remember Ms O'Malley contributing to that debate as a Member of the House.

I think we will make progress on this now, partially due to the work that has been done by people who brought this issue to the fore, but also due to the fact that there is perhaps a genuine recognition now that this is a national social issue that needs to be addressed. Today's debate is very much contributing to that. The main point I wish to make is that we now need to track this, and I know the Women's Caucus will do that. We need to ensure we make progress, that this is not just a once-off debate that highlights an issue and that the collection points and all the other work being done make a difference to women who are vulnerable and women who cannot afford these necessary products. That is not enough, however. We need to make this a matter of policy and a matter of human rights, not just a matter of doing certain things that will alleviate the situation for certain women. We must ensure that period poverty becomes a thing of the past.

Again, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I will now hand over to my colleague, Deputy Sherlock.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, for sharing her time with me. I, too, congratulate Deirdre Kingston, Rebecca Moynihan and people such as George Lawlor - I speak for my own party in this regard - for raising awareness of this issue and certainly building my consciousness of period poverty. It is an issue I would have typically shied away from previously, saying it was very much a women's issue. It is not one on which I would have necessarily engaged. People such as Ms Moynihan, to be fair to her, have certainly opened my eyes to the issues at play here. As a society, if we are to move on and really to achieve full equality, there must be an acknowledgement of issues such as this, and we as men must embrace these issues. It is particularly welcome that the Women's Caucus has embraced this as an issue, and I am delighted to be part of the debate and the interaction today.

On a personal level, I congratulate everyone who is part of this initiative. What we see here is a cross-party attempt to ensure that this issue is dealt with by Government. I congratulate the people from the NGO sector who have worked on this issue. It is particularly apposite that in the House of Commons today, notwithstanding the bad news we are used to hearing from that House, there was a chink of light in Philip Hammond's spring statement. He said he has decided to fund the provision of free sanitary products in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year. I am no fan of the Tories, but if the Tories can do it, I do not see why we cannot. I think there would be cross-party support to try to ensure that this could be done. If local authorities are doing it and embracing this as an issue, I do not see why Government cannot do likewise, particularly given it has cross-party support to do so. I am, therefore, hopeful the Government can deliver on this and respond substantially to the motion before us.

I now call Solidarity-People Before Profit. Is Deputy Bríd Smith sharing time?

I am sharing with Deputy Coppinger.

I put my name to this cross-party motion and was happy to do so because period poverty is a very real issue for women struggling to get by, particularly women living in homelessness or direct provision. However, a week ago, when the Society of St. Vincent de Paul report on poverty rates among lone parents came out, I thought about the motion with a certain degree of disgust and anger because I recognised that I had co-signed a motion with many Deputies who have been party to imposing austerity measures of the severest kind on lone parents over the terms of the past two Governments.

I will highlight one thing that caught my eye because I do not think many people will be aware of these statistics. This motion promotes "healthy and environmentally-friendly sanitary products". While sanitary products have improved greatly since I was a young one, they use much more plastic. Statistics show that the average menstruator uses more than 11,000 disposal products over a lifetime. This figure is based on 37.5 years of menstruation, using 22 items per cycle and 13 cycles per year. A study conducted in Britain on the number of pieces of menstrual waste found on beaches showed that, on average, 4.8 items of menstrual waste are found on every 100 m of beach. This is another reason to argue the necessity to promote recyclable and eco-friendly products. There are many alternatives. Younger women tell me that menstrual cups are a great alternative to pads and tampons. A small cup made of medical-grade silicon, folded and inserted into the body, sits at the base of the cervix collecting menstrual fluid. It is reusable, eco-friendly, comfortable and leak-free. A single cup can be used for up to 15 years.

My main focus is on poverty, in particular the poverty inflicted on those on low pay and in precarious jobs. Period poverty is suffered by workers who have no security and may have heavy periods every month. We do not have figures for Ireland, but British statistics suggest that as many as one in five women miss work on at least one day per month because of painful periods. If we were to apply those statistics proportionately to Ireland, it would mean women take 250,000 sick days each year because of period pain. For professional women, it may be just a case of staying at home from work on the day their period is heaviest and most painful. For those at the bottom of the labour market, however, it is a very different story. Having a sick day every month could well result in someone losing a job. The number and length of toilet breaks in many jobs, such as shops and factories, are being monitored all of the time.

Period poverty in work can be worse for those on precarious contracts, many of whom suffer real period poverty. Their wages will be significantly reduced if they have to skip work for a day or part of a day because of severe pain or heavy bleeding. In some Asian countries, which are not usually perceived to be the most progressive, labour laws allow for one to three menstrual leave days each year as a right. As well as campaigning on these issues, we need to fight for industrial relations laws that would allow days taken off work for periods to be recognised and paid by all employers, not only some of them. This is clearly a trade union issue on which we should encourage people to engage.

A study on lone parents published last week by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul revealed the shocking statistic that poverty among lone parents doubled between 2012 and 2017. Whereas in 2012, before the cuts, one in 11 households headed by lone parents was living in poverty, that figure now stands at one in five households. That is a direct result of the austerity measures introduced by the former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, and perpetuated by the current Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and those who went before her. That harshest measures imposed by female and male Deputies, particularly on women, during times of austerity have the effect of increasing poverty. It is a recognised fact that women bear a greater burden than any other sector of society. When the then Minister for Finance stated he would first pick the low-hanging fruit, he was referring to women in precarious jobs, lone parents, women in homelessness, etc.

I do not know if the words "period poverty" were ever uttered in this House before today. I suspect they were probably not. I doubt very much that periods have been much discussed in the Chamber apart from, as I recall, when we discussed the abortion legislation and reference to women's periods was written into the Bill. It is welcome that what has been called a "period revolution" is taking place in the world. The film, "Period. End of Sentence.", which deals with this issue on a global scale for the majority of women and girls on the planet, could win an Oscar. It is good that the taboo has been broken.

A period is a perfectly natural event that affects more than half the planet. In many cultures, however, it causes women and girls to be banished and to miss out on education and life. In the so-called developed world and Ireland, period poverty is also a reality. I welcome this motion and that similar motions have been introduced in many other forums recently. I echo the point that if we want to end period poverty, we must end poverty.

Exactly. That is why, from the socialist-feminist perspective that I come from, I do not participate in the Oireachtas women's parliamentary caucus. The majority of participants are members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, all of which have participated in Governments that have cut women's incomes, will not pay nurses properly, which is the most practical way to close the gender pay gap, and do not stand for a woman's right to choose. I choose to spend my time on activism and in other forums.

Is Deputy Coppinger implying the Labour Party does not stand for a woman's right to choose?

I referred to the many members of the women's parliamentary caucus who do not stand for a woman's right to choose. I welcome this issue being discussed but I wanted to clarify my position. Period poverty is directly related to wider poverty. A report on lone parents was published last week. In Ireland, 84% of lone parents are unable to meet unexpected expenses, including sanitary products for themselves and their teenage children. Lone parents were subjected to savage austerity by the previous Government in particular.

Speaking on RTÉ, a representative of Crosscare pointed out that sanitary products are never on the shelf for long in food banks. Women are queuing for food but also for sanitary products. Half of young people have had problems paying for sanitary products and about 10% stated they used a less suitable product. Constituents of the former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, who cut allowances for lone parents and young people, experience this problem as well. The low level of payments to people in direct provision has been mentioned. How is it possible for someone on €21 a week to afford these sanitary products? A similar issue arises in the context of Traveller accommodation where some Traveller women do not have access to basic toilets or running water. They will not be able to have sanitary products either.

Regarding the motion, the provision of free sanitary products in public buildings is essential. The British Government announced today that it will provide free sanitary products for all secondary schools. The same should happen here and the Government should make such an announcement very quickly. A motion from a Solidarity councillor in Castleknock, Sandra Kavanagh, has been on the agenda of Fingal County Council for three months and has not yet been reached. It calls on Fingal County Council to implement a similar measure. I ask that the motion be attended to.

The Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills noted in August 2018 that parents were being asked to bring toilet rolls into schools. The chronic underfunding of schools by previous two or three Governments would have to be completely reversed if we were to implement this motion. We should go much further. Sanitary products are essential items in any developed society and they should be available free everywhere, not only in public buildings. Most people will not be in a public building when they need a sanitary product. These products are needed at different times. If we want period dignity, something Unite and other trade unions are taking up as an issue, sanitary products should be free in workplaces and freely available throughout society.

While I welcome this motion, it needs to go much further. The Government needs to stop vetoing our sex education Bill. Some 60% of young people who responded to a survey indicated they were not properly educated about menstruation.

That includes boys and girls, which is relevant if we want to end the taboo. I, therefore, call on the Government to stop using the money message as a device to stop our Bill from being progressed because that would be a sign that the Government really means business.

First I would like to say that I support the Private Members' motion put forward by the Women's Caucus. It is a positive motion and I have signed it. The points that have been made by Plan International Ireland are quite stark, but they are nothing new for a lot of women and men in our society. Nearly half of teenage girls across Ireland struggle to afford sanitary products during their periods. As has already been mentioned, a survey of more than 1,100 young women aged between 12 and 19 shows that nearly 50% of Irish teenage girls find it difficult to afford sanitary towels and tampons. According to Plan International Ireland, some 109 of the young women who participated in this survey said they were forced to use a less suitable sanitary product because of the high monthly cost involved. Nearly 60% of young women said they did not find classes on periods at school to be helpful, while six out of ten reported feeling shame and embarrassment about their period.

A small number said they believed they could lose their virginity by using a tampon, while others did not think it was possible to become pregnant while having their period. Some 61% of Irish girls have missed school because of their period, and more than 80% said they did not feel comfortable talking about their period with their father or a teacher. Nearly 70% take some sort of pain relief during menstruation. A young woman of 19 who took part in the survey said she felt the need to hide her period from friends and family. She is now a college student and has said:

I’m still not used to looking at the receipt after buying pads and seeing this huge sum that I need to fork over. Pads and tampons are necessities but are still seen as luxury.

That observation is the key point. These are necessities. They pertain to women's bodily functions and they should be provided in public places. As has been said already, they should be provided to women free of charge. I would argue that the pill and contraception should also be free as part of providing for women's health.

In Ireland sanitary towels can cost anywhere between €2 and €6 per pack, with the average pack containing ten to 15 pads. Tampons range in price from about €1.50 to €6 per pack. A 12-pack of Nurofen ibuprofen pain relief tablets costs €4.20. Nearly every woman has a packet of them in her bag when her period is approaching. A woman will have 13 periods a year with some using up to 22 tampons or towels per cycle, leading to an estimated yearly cost of €132.34 for sanitary products.

Earlier the point was made that discussing menstruation, women's health, vaginas, periods, etc., is a taboo. That comes from a culture in this country that is testament to the strength of the church's control, particularly over women of my era. I was born in 1961. I remember a time when girls did not know what was happening to them when they got their period. They thought they were dying. All a girl had was a little pamphlet given to her by Sister Mary. The authorities told girls a few things about their period, but they would not talk to anyone else. The information a girl would get came from talking to her mates on street corners. She would rely on older children who had experienced it and gone through it. I am glad that day is over. We are pushing that monkey off our back and we are able to discuss the topic of a basic bodily function in the Dáil and other public fora.

I also support one of the motion's call on the Government to prioritise the issue of menstrual equity for girls and children’s rights as central to Irish Aid’s work overseas in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, and Goal 6 which calls for universal and equitable access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.

I wish to qualify this by pointing out that period poverty is a symptom of poverty. We cannot get away from that point, which other Deputies have also made. In 2015, Deputy Burton kicked lone parents in the teeth when she reduced the age ceiling for the one-parent family payment to seven years for the youngest child. The idea behind that was to encourage women, particularly lone parents, into the workplace, where they could get better pay and get out of the poverty trap. We now know that by 2017 a lone parent working 20 hours on minimum wage was down €108 a week. That does not include the cuts to child benefit, rent allowance and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Some of those cuts have been reversed but payments have not been returned to the level they were at in 2012.

In discussing this we must mention a report of Society of St. Vincent de Paul entitled Working, Parenting and Struggling?, which has already been referred to. The report found that in 2012 one in 11 lone parents was living below the poverty line. By 2017 that proportion had increased to one in five. That was a direct outcome of the 2015 cuts in the lone parent family payment. It is very stark. How can women pay for sanitary towels, tampons or painkillers if they have been reduced to a level where one lone parent in five lives below the poverty line?

That report also found that in 2017, 45% of lone parents reported that housing costs represented a heavy financial burden. Almost 18% were in arrears on rent or mortgage repayments. The proportion of other households with children that were in arrears was 8%. In 2017, 58% of lone parents were working compared to 46% in 2012. This is the lowest rate among the EU15 countries. There are also issues of food poverty, housing poverty and health poverty because of low pay and the decisions and policies of this Government and the last Government. These Governments reduced payments and pay right across the board, which has affected women.

I support the motion and will be voting for it, as I am sure everybody here will. However, all these issues have to be taken on board when we talk about period poverty. They are all linked to poverty. We need a Government that is progressive and that does not feed the spoils of the so-called recovery to the top 10% of earners. A report published by the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, on 19 February found that the top 10% of Ireland's population receives almost 25% of the national income. The bottom 40% of the country's population receives only 22% of national income, while the top 1% receives more than 5%.

Until we change our policies from those of the right-wing Government we have been subjected to for the last three years, we will continue to see that sort of poverty. However, this motion will go a long way in the right direction. I hope to see sanitary towels, tampons and other sanitary items made available in public buildings, libraries, workplaces, retail units and shops. I support the motion, but I repeat the point that this is really down to poverty. Unless we address those issues we will continue to see issues like this.

I referred earlier to Deputy Burton and her Government, which ran from 2011 to 2016. It sticks in my craw a little bit to see certain people flying the flag for this cause and making the point that women on low income struggle when they were part of implementing the cuts affecting those women. They should think about what they are saying and doing. However, it is great to see that the three Dublin county councils have introduced this and are running a pilot scheme to make sanitary towels available in the buildings they run and organise.

I thank the Women's Caucus for introducing this motion.

I was not aware of the term "period poverty" until this past week, even though the issue of menstrual bleeding is a common one which presents to general practice and is raised in medical consultations. Bringing this motion before the House is a sign of growing confidence and maturity in this Dáil. It would not have come about were it not for the creation of the caucus. It is a sign of maturity and the fact that we are moving on and that we can discuss these issues in an open forum.

Menstruation is a very intimate issue that is taboo for many women. It is a private process. It is a personal bodily function, which means that it is very rarely spoken about in public. It relates to sexual function and reproduction. It is to be seen as a very normal process but something which causes problems for many women. Menstrual bleeding is a natural process in most cases but it can be a medical problem for a significant number of women.

Education of young girls is essential in addressing this issue. The process in this regard should start in school. Menstruation is a natural process so it should be discussed as part of the normal education of our young girls. It is an essential part of their femininity and is important in the context of their social status. It should be part of normal sex education not only for girls but for boys as well, and it should be part of our educational curriculum. There are many issues in health which should be part of our educational curriculum and this is certainly one of them.

Menstruation is a medical issue in some women in terms of excessive bleeding but, thankfully, due to advances in medical technology, menorrhagia or excessive bleeding in women no longer results in hysterectomies. The insertion of a Mirena coil can cure that problem or certainly control it. However, there are many other issues in respect of abnormal menstrual bleeding such as endometriosis, which Deputy Corcoran Kennedy mentioned, and also polycystic ovaries. It is very important, therefore, that young girls realise that if their menstrual bleeding is excessive, irregular or abnormal, it is a medical issue about which they should speak to their doctor.

This motion relates to the cost and the availability of sanitary ware but it also refers to understanding the issues women have in terms of their lifestyles and activities. Menstrual bleeding can impinge significantly on the activities of daily living, including on involvement in sport and recreation. If it is severe it can interfere with education or work. It is an issue which transcends normal bleeding but also abnormal bleeding and feeds into the way women interact with society.

The cost of managing menstrual bleeding is not an issue for everybody. However, it is an issue for those who do not have financial independence such as adolescents and students but also marginalised sectors of our society which have been highlighted in the motion, one of which is homeless women. It must be a very difficult issue for homeless women who do not have access to toilets and privacy to deal with their menstruation. It is an issue for women in direct provision and also for women in our Traveller community who do not have secure and permanent living circumstances. There are many sectors of society in which this issue is far more important than others. It also affects people who have to manage their resources on very limited incomes.

Free access to sanitary care is logical. It is an issue in terms of hygiene and also having access to sanitary ware when it is needed. I refer again to Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's contribution. If someone turned up at a toilet and found there was no toilet paper, that person would be very aggrieved. There is no reason access to sanitary ware for the menstrual cycle should not be freely available. As a general practitioner, I have baby-changing and breast-feeding facilities in my surgery but it never entered my head to provide sanitary ware. I would expect that is the case in many doctors' surgeries. I will highlight to the medical representative organisations the fact that these are important items to have available in surgeries. The women's caucus is proposing in the motion that sanitary ware should be widely available in all public places so it is a natural extension that they should be available in doctors' surgeries.

Regarding the taboo in terms of menstruation and natural reproductive issues, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy referred to women being churched in the past. It may be a sign of our age but it is only two generations ago that women were churched. The process of being churched was that when a woman had a baby, she could not enter the church again until she had been cleansed of her lack of purification. It was a purification rite. It was considered almost a sin if a woman did not present ,to the priest in the church to receive a blessing and be returned to a state of grace. If women speak to the members of the generation that preceded them, many will tell them of this activity. It may not have been common in urban areas but in rural areas it was a tradition that following the birth of her baby a woman was churched to cleanse her of what was almost the sin of reproduction. Such are our changing times that this ritual, for want of a better word, no longer happens.

Regarding women's menstrual cycles, there is a very important issue the women's caucus should also consider, that is, the provision of free contraception. It is extremely important that we provide free contraception. If we are to deal with the issue of crisis pregnancy, we cannot throw our hands up in horror if we have not made every attempt to provide free contraception. The Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution had an addendum to its findings and recommendations to the effect that free contraception should be available as part of the issue of dealing with unwanted pregnancies, crisis pregnancies and abortion. That issue should be on the agenda of the women's caucus. I know it has other issues it wants to discuss but that is an extremely important one that is also of current interest.

The next speaker is Deputy Shortall, who is sharing with Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Deputy Eamon Ryan can go ahead.

It is ladies first usually but we will make an exception today.

Deputy Fitzmaurice is also contributing in this slot.

If it is possible, we might-----

Is it four, four and two?

I will take less than that. Deputy Shortall will take the majority of the time.

I was very pleased to be able to attend the briefing in the AV Room yesterday where Plan International and Homeless Period Ireland explained this issue. I needed to have it explained to me. I was glad that it was done and I am very glad that we are having this debate.

To refer to Deputy Harty's comment, I am not certain that the taboo has gone. It is certainly not gone among people of my sex and generation. It is awkward if one is asked to buy tampons for someone.

I was amazed during the discussion in the AV Room yesterday, which was a very good discussion, to discover the taboo is still there and is not something from previous generations. Deputy Catherine Martin said earlier that 60% of young girls still feel a sense of shame and embarrassment. Breaking that taboo is not a small thing. The word "menstruation" was mentioned 27 times in the House in the past 100 years. We have shattered that record this evening and that is a good thing. It is right that the women's caucus has broken that taboo.

I agree with Deputy Harty that we should go further, perhaps at the suggestion of the women's caucus, on the issue of free contraception. It would be perfectly appropriate. It is something about which we can come together because it is not party political. We all want to tackle every aspect of poverty but it is not always easy to get agreement on some other ways to do that. That should not preclude us getting cross-party consensus where we can by coming up with specific, targeted and focused measures. The women's caucus has done an important job in doing that this evening.

It is also timely. I am on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and we were considering the start of the budget cycle. The European Commission was before the committee today with the country review and this is exactly the right day to be discussing budget proposals. This is a specific, targeted and beneficial budgetary proposal. The test of today's debate will be on 10 October, or whatever date the budget will be delivered. It is right to come in early and say this should be in the budget. It will cost approximately €1 million a year to go into every prison and school and ensure we are tackling period poverty.

This is also about education. It is not just poverty in financial terms, it is poverty that comes from people not talking about something and poverty that comes with taboo. We will help to break that with the provision of that €1 million to make all our young people, and our men, better informed and treat this issue with real difference. That is what this debate is about this evening.

I am very happy to pledge the full support of the Social Democrats for this motion and we were very pleased to sign it. It is a significant development and initiative by the women's caucus, the establishment of which has been positive. I commend Deputies Catherine Martin and Corcoran Kennedy who led the establishment of the caucus and this particular initiative. All credit to them for doing that.

This initiative is really important because it tackles both the taboo of periods and the issue of poverty. There are those in Government and elsewhere who would deny that there is a level of poverty which results in a significant number of Irish girls and women finding it difficult to afford basic sanitary items they desperately need on a monthly basis for many years of their lives. Unfortunately we are at that point in Irish society where significant numbers of people are living on the bread line and basic items, such as sanitary products, are a struggle for them to afford and they have to make a choice between buying those products and buying other essentials. We are in that situation now for a significant number of women and families in this country.

This is one of the last few taboo subjects and it is a healthy sign that we are having a mature debate on the issue of periods and how they pose challenges for girls and women in our society. It is important that we are addressing this issue now. I know the caucus looked at a number of particular issues that affect girls and women and identified this issue as something that would help to break that taboo but it is also a doable initiative. That is the whole point about it. This will not change the world or cost a fortune. This is recognising a basic human need for half of the population and addressing it in a practical way. I hope the Government supports this wholeheartedly and provides the necessary funding required.

Deputy Harty spoke about the issue of taboo and those of us who have been around for a while remember the antediluvian attitude and practice within the Catholic Church of the churching of women. Over the years, that has led to a situation where, as was quoted, a significant number of teenage girls, 60%, still feel that sense of shame and embarrassment about having periods. That does not come out of nowhere. It is the result of a long cultural impact. Those attitudes are clearly extremely discriminatory and derogatory and need to be eliminated as a matter of urgency. The way to do that is through education. We need modern sexual health and reproduction education courses in schools and we do not have them. We need to ensure our male and female young people are taught openly about their reproductive systems, having and giving consent, enjoying sexual pleasure and human nature around sexual activity and the reproductive system, rather than the purely biological perspective which is very often the only kind of sex education children receive in school. Education should be about creating a sense of body positivity for young men and women and, unfortunately, we do not have that. There is a long way to go.

I very much commend those involved in this initiative. It is essential that we move forward in doing this and make free sanitary products available on a much more widespread basis and we should take the lead of Dublin City Council. Much more still needs to be done, especially in our schools and public buildings. Well done to everybody involved in this initiative.

I support the motion and commend Deputy Catherine Martin and the women's caucus on bringing this forward. We must be honest and admit that there are statistics quoted in the motion of which we were not aware and that are frightening, such as that 50% of young girls find it difficult to afford sanitary products. We should also mention the vision of Dublin City Council, as outlined in the motion, in making an effort when compared with other sectors of society.

We can have all the motions we want here but we need to make an honest effort and the Government should show leadership on this issue in the forthcoming budget. A similar initiative is being rolled out in Aberdeen on a pilot basis. I do not like doing things on a pilot basis. If we are doing something we need to do it throughout the country. The different places in which facilities could be provided are outlined in the motion. We need to ensure such facilities are in every part of the country, wherever people live. That can be done if there is will from the Government.

I commend the women's caucus again. It is an educational motion for the likes of us and, if the will is there, this can be delivered.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions on this issue and assure them that their input will be given due consideration when we look at ways to mitigate period poverty. The impact that period poverty can have on the ability and confidence of women and girls to participate to their full potential in education, employment, sport or social activities is something we need to address. The impact on mental well-being from feelings of shame or stigma associated with period poverty is also something we need to collectively address.

Government policy aims to treat all citizens as equal regardless of gender. We have published the national strategy for women and girls and a cross-governmental strategy committee, led by the Department of Justice and Equality and chaired by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is in place to oversee implementation.

It is clear from the issues raised this evening that tackling this issue of period poverty is likely to require a multidisciplinary response from across the Government. All the main Departments, the other partner organisations and sectors are already collaborating on the implementation of the women and girls strategy. This will be an obvious and useful forum in which to consider the matters raised this evening.

I thank the Oireachtas Women's Parliamentary Caucus for raising the profile of this important issue and for the good work undertaken to date. I reassure Members that I and my fellow Ministers at the Department of Health and the Department look forward to contributing to the development of measures intended to address it.

Question put and agreed to.