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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 27 Mar 2019

Vol. 264 No. 10

Period Poverty: Motion

I move:

That Seanad 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 Organization'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 29 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 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 of, or one in two, 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%;

— 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 welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to the House. I welcome to the Visitors Gallery, Deputy Catherine Martin, the chairperson of our Oireachtas women's caucus. I commend Deputy Martin on all her great work in chairing it, bringing all women Members of both Houses together and initiating the debate on period poverty and the wording of this motion. As colleagues will be aware, this motion was already debated in the Dáil, during international women's week, around 8 March. We thought we would introduce it in the Seanad in the same spirit as a cross-party motion proposed by all Members of the Seanad, both women and men. I am delighted that my colleague, Senator Clifford-Lee, will be seconding the motion but it is an all-party motion supported by everyone here.

In the short time in which the women's caucus has been in place, it has already had a very powerful voice on women's issues and policy issues generally. For example, we held a very successful international conference of women's caucuses in Dublin Castle last September, bringing in women parliamentarians from all across the world, from developing and developed countries alike. It was really interesting for all who took part to share our common experience as women in Parliaments across the world and to share the experience of almost all of us of being in a minority in our Parliaments. I do not need to tell the Minister of State or anyone else how low the rate of female representation still is in the Dáil and Seanad. It is somewhat better in the Seanad, at 30%, but still very poor. The rate in the Dáil, 22%, is still far too low, despite the great achievement of the quota, which raised the proportion of women's representation from the previous high, which was only 16%, to the current high, 22%, or 35 women out of 158. I hope we will be joined in the Gallery very shortly by a group of young women, future women leaders, and some young men who took part in the Department of Justice and Equality's Politics Needs Women competition to mark the centenary of women's suffrage in Ireland last year. Each of the 16 finalist schools created a short video clip on why politics needs women. The videos were incredibly creative and original. The winning school, from Clane in Kildare, brought the two students involved and their teachers to New York in March to take part in the Commission on the Status of Women events there. It was a great prize. The videos in their entirety are really powerful. I was very proud and privileged to chair the panel judging the videos. I commend all those who made the videos. I was glad we were able to host the 16 school finalists just now in the Department of Justice and Equality, and we will soon be hosting them here in Leinster House. I hope they will come in to watch some of this important debate.

This debate is an initiative of the women's caucus. It is a very important one because it marks the first time that menstruation and periods have been debated in the Oireachtas, in the Seanad today and in the Dáil two weeks ago. Considering how few women representatives we have had over the 101 years for which women have had the right to vote and have been elected to the Dáil, it is not surprising that there has been so little reference to menstruation. It is dreadful that something so integral to women's health and so normal for all women and girls has not been debated or talked about openly. I very much hope today that we will have male colleagues in the Seanad speak, as was the case in the Dáil. My colleagues, Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Sean Sherlock, both spoke in the Dáil debate. It was important that men and women participated.

There is increased awareness of period poverty, in particular. The motion does not just refer to menstruation or periods for its own sake. It is also a matter of speaking about the real issue, which is not just about women's health but also poverty. The Minister of State will be very aware of this. The increased awareness of period poverty has opened many people's eyes to the issues at play. There have been quite a number of legislative and policy initiatives recently to tackle period poverty, of which this motion is part.

I commend the work of those councillors who have raised this as an issue, in particular my Labour Party colleague, Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, who first brought the issue of period poverty to the fore in Dublin City Council. Last September, councillors in that council supported her motion to provide free sanitary products in Dublin City Council-owned buildings. They will now be available at libraries, sports centres, council offices and community centres. It is a really progressive and practical step. The initiative has been followed by my Labour Party colleague in Dún Laoghaire, Councillor Deirdre Kingston, and in Wexford by Councillor George Lawlor, who have ensured that similar motions were passed in their councils. I commend them on raising awareness of this issue.

We could say the issue of period poverty is having a moment. It is being highlighted, not only in Ireland but also elsewhere. We have seen an initiative online, Pads4Dads, to encourage fathers to speak to their daughters about periods. That is very important in my family. I have two daughters and it is important that they feel comfortable speaking to their father about what is such an important health issue for them.

Just last month, a film about an amazing initiative in India to provide sanitary products to women, "Period. End of Sentence", won the Academy Award for best short documentary at the Oscars. It is a powerful film about the Pad Project, a group of local women in India who have learned how to operate a machine that makes low-cost biodegradable sanitary pads, which they sell to other women at affordable prices, helping to improve feminine hygiene by providing access to basic products but also by supporting and empowering women to tackle and shed the taboo in India surrounding menstruation. This is not a taboo unique to India or any one country.

Clearly, this is something that has to be tackled in every country.

An effective publicity campaign accompanied the film. It focuses on the twin issues of stigma and the real financial burden for women and girls. Indeed, at the briefing in the audiovisual room that Deputy Catherine Martin and the Women's Caucus organised two weeks ago, all of us who were present heard powerful and moving testimony about the real impacts of period poverty on women and girls in developing countries many of whom have to miss a great deal of school because they have no access to sanitary products that would enable them to attend. We have seen other initiatives to tackle period poverty. Ms Aditi Gupta, a young entrepreneur in India, seeks to explain menstruation through a comic book she has produced, called Menstrupedia, which has already reached 150,000 girls in her country as an educational tool aimed at breaking down the stigma of talking about periods.

Plan International Ireland, which was represented at the briefing in the audiovisual room, has termed the "toxic trio" of period poverty as: first, the stigma and taboo of not being able to speak openly about menstruation; second, insufficient education about periods and menstruation, not only for girls in schools but also boys who also, of course, need to know about female health; and, third, the cost and lack of affordability of sanitary wear - basic hygiene products. We know, as I have said, from the work of Plan International Ireland and other organisations, that there are millions of women and girls across the globe who cannot afford period protection. We need to tackle that, and that is part of the text of the motion. In addition, we need to make an effort to rethink the education we provide about menstruation and to shake off, as I have said, the stigma and taboo bound up with menstruation.

This new movement, this new political impetus around period poverty, seeks to address not only the financial and practical barriers to accessing adequate sanitary protection but also attitudinal and cultural problems. I refer to attitudes which continue to suggest that women should whisper, speak among themselves about, use euphemisms with which we are all familiar, such referring to one's "time of the month", hide tampons up their sleeves, etc. There is an ongoing issue in the context of stigma and shame and this must be dealt with in conjunction with tackling the financial barriers.

While it is important we focus on the attitudes and culture, the financial barriers are very real. Last May, the UNFPA, the family planning association of the United Nations, published a comprehensive review of available evidence on menstrual health management in east and southern Africa which powerfully underscored the ways in which period shame and misinformation had undermined the well-being of women and girls, making them vulnerable to gender discrimination, child marriage and early marriage, exclusion, violence, poverty and untreated health problems. As already stated, the link between menstruation and lost time in school is well documented, as are the links between menstruation and lost wages. Women across the globe experience limited access to sanitation facilities in their work places and education facilities. The UNFPA reported highlighted important initiatives taken by countries such as Kenya, where schools distributed sanitary pads to tackle girls' absenteeism. The UNFPA has been supporting these and similar initiatives around the world seeking to ensure that girls need not miss school due to the lack of availability of adequate sanitary pads and sanitary facilities.

I note the impact that lack of access to menstrual health has on the achievement of the UN sustainable development goals, particularly the access to sanitation facilities in goal 6 and, of course, the very important achievement of gender equality listed in goal 5 of the UN sustainable development goals.

We are joined by some of the finalists in the Politics Needs Women competition that I mentioned earlier. I welcome them all from the different schools. As I said, there were 16 schools in the final. Already today, students from 13 of them have visited the Department of Justice and Equality and Leinster House in order to witness the workings of the Dáil and Seanad and, of course, to hear us debate. It is timely that we are debating an issue of women's health such as this motion on period poverty when we are joined by so many powerful young voices who represent, as I have stated, the future of politics in Ireland. I hope that in the future politics will be more equal for women.

I have spoken about the impact of period poverty in developing countries and referred to the work being done by the UNFPA, Plan International and other development agencies. However, period poverty is also an issue in this country. We heard powerful testimony at the briefing to which I refer in the audiovisual room regarding the impact of lack of access to sanitary products for many women and girls here. This affects quality of life. It affects access to education, access to work and, indeed, all sorts of other aspects of active life, such as sport. Councillor Rebecca Moynihan has pointed out that homeless women, those living in direct provision and women on low incomes struggle in the context of accessing sanitary products just as women and girls in developing countries have done for so long. Our motion seeks to tackle this aspect of period poverty here as well as in other countries.

I commend the Homeless Period Ireland organisation, founded by Ms Petra Hanlon and directed brilliantly by Ms Claire Hunt, which now has 30 drop-off points for people to donate sanitary products to homeless women. Indeed, we had a drop-off point in the Oireachtas to coincide with the debate in the Dáil on period poverty two weeks ago. I very much hope that will not be the last time we have a drop-off point here and that we will make it a regular event to have such drop-off points in order to raise awareness about period poverty in Ireland and in developing countries.

I am running out of time. Mindful that we are joined by such powerful young advocates for women in politics in the Gallery, I take this opportunity to state that no girl or woman should be held back from developing or thriving because of the stigma that surrounds periods. We hope that this motion is just the beginning of people in Ireland taking period poverty seriously and of tackling issues relating to stigma and access to sanitary products. We hope that the Government will take up the challenge we have laid down in this motion and that practical and tangible initiatives be put in place in order to address the very real issue of period poverty for so many women and girls throughout Ireland and, indeed, internationally.

Senator Bacik will have four minutes at the end to reply. The Senator has gone approximately four minutes over time but I dared not pull her up on it.

I second the motion.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am delighted that we are having this debate. It follows on from the debate in Dáil Éireann, which was very well received both here and by the general public. I, too, commend the Women's Caucus for formulating this motion and putting it forward. I am delighted that we have cross-party support across both Houses. The motion relates to starting the debate and then continuing on with it. The debate on period poverty has inspired many young people right and has started them down the road of political activism, which is to be encouraged. It is part of the overall debate on reproduction that we are having but we still have a long way to go.

I also welcome the students in the Gallery. I commend them on the work they have done. I particularly commend Mr. Senan O'Reardon and Ms Fathia Rasheed from Donabate community college, which is located near where I live. Their school was one of the finalists. Those in the Gallery are doing a great job to promote female participation. I am glad that they are here for this very important debate, a debate we are having because we have record numbers of women in both Houses of the Oireachtas, even though the numbers are quite low. Let us hope it will inspire plenty more people to put themselves forward for election.

As already stated, a generation of young women, and men, have been inspired by the period poverty debate. In particular, I commend Eureka Secondary School in Kells. I visited the school and pupils from there visited Leinster House in return. They have started a project called "Our Conversation about Menstruation", which can be found online. They do a great job at having this discussion and advertising the issue of period poverty.

This is a real issue. When I started talking about this over 12 months ago, people were somewhat confused. They did not realise that it was an issue until the debate started. I suppose women were aware of it but they never spoke about it out of shame and the stigma regarding periods. The inability to provide for one's own basic hygiene is a cause of shame but that should not be the case. It is a failure of society that 50% of Irish girls state that they have missed out on their education because of lack of access to hygiene products.

Two thirds of Irish women have used makeshift protection for periods, which is a high number. The various other items that they have used can lead to serious health implications and infections down the line. That is shameful and should not be happening in Ireland today though, unfortunately, it is.

Homeless women and women living in direct provision are particularly vulnerable and that is added to all the other issues they are facing because of their living situations. This issue is, obviously, particular to women. It should not be there. It will have a devastating impact on those women and it is something we, as a society, need to tackle. I commend Homeless Period Ireland on the fantastic work they are doing but it should not be up to people to volunteer and provide sanitary products that should be provided by the Government.

I hope this conversation will result in real action taking place. Our near neighbours in Scotland rolled out a scheme last September, which cost £5 million. Scotland has a similar population to us and those products are now available in public buildings. The women of Ireland deserve this investment. I hope the Minister of State will promise that it will be delivered in Ireland in the very near future.

I also commend the women's caucus for the motion and acknowledge Deputy Catherine Martin who is in the Public Gallery. As others said, it is a conversation that needs to be had.

This is an issue that, when it does not affect one directly, can be quite difficult to relate to. If one can afford to purchase the products one needs, and one lives in that world, it is easy not to think of those who might be in a different situation. No woman should have to choose between basic needs and sanitary products and yet that is the situation in which some women find themselves each month.

Recent studies show that 50% of Irish girls aged between 12 and 19 have experienced issues with the affordability of sanitary products. That is a significant number and, as Senator Clifford-Lee said, our neighbours in Scotland have rolled out a scheme to provide free sanitary products in schools. That alone would do away with much of that statistic I mentioned, which would be welcome. The scheme in Scotland is highly effective and costs approximately £5 million per year to operate, which is a lot of money, but is affordable in the context of what we spend as a country. As others said, women who are vulnerable in direct provision and homelessness are the most in need of measures that could alleviate period poverty.

Some schools in Ireland have also brought in the strategy adopted in Scotland and they should be commended. However, their reach is limited and there is no replacement for Government action, as Senator Clifford-Lee said, which can reach every woman on this island. Missing school, becoming ill or getting infections are all serious issues that are related to this. As previous speakers said, it is about having an open and frank conversation on the issue. Senator Bacik, in particular, has clearly done a lot of research on the level of stigma and taboo that exists in developing countries and went into considerable detail about that. There is still a stigma and embarrassment. With the greatest of respect to the men present, if something is below the belt in this Chamber, it tends to be women who talk about it which, in a way, is understandable but it speaks to a stigma or embarrassment about women's health issues. That needs to be brought to an end. We are all familiar with the euphemisms that Senator Bacik mentioned and those things are not spoken about openly or freely. Perhaps there is a reason for that.

Period poverty is a problem for which we know there is a solution that is not costly. That is where I come from on this. We must act now on what we know to be the right thing to do and ensure that no woman or girl in Ireland faces this dilemma ever again.

I pay tribute to Ms Claire Hunt of Homeless Period Ireland, as Senator Clifford-Lee did. She has worked tirelessly to address this issue in communities across Ireland. Her drive and determination serve as a welcome inspiration for actions we must consider as legislators. Like other issues that relate to women, we need to push for this. It is an area that begs a few puns but the bottom line is we need this motion to be passed and something to be done, period.

I welcome the young women from Politics Needs Women to the House. It is great to see so many young women and they are all welcome. I hope, before too long, they will be in these seats and the seats in the Dáil. We need more women's voices and this motion is an example of that. It is not just more women that we need across the board but women from different backgrounds with different experiences who bring different issues and priorities to this House. We see it in the group of women here in the House. Each of us brings a unique piece and it is like putting a jigsaw together. It makes things work and it leads to good debate and legislation when we have well-rounded and informed input into the legislation.

I also thank the women's caucus and, in particular, Deputy Catherine Martin, who was here, for the great work she does on the caucus and for bringing forward this important motion which I am happy to support It is a comprehensive motion, which is well thought-out and clear in its objectives. We have had problems in the past with motions being agreed with by the Government but not delivered on. The Minister of State is welcome to the House and I urge her and the Leader to ensure the motion is acted on and not just shelved once passed.

I will speak to 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 I know, that has still not happened. There are women who receive only €38.30 a week. 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 to be provided free in direct provision centres. I urge the Minister to ensure that this is rolled out immediately.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, in his reply to this motion in the Dáil referenced the Government's national strategy for women and girls. I could not find a reference to menstruation or periods in that document but it is possible I missed it so perhaps the Minister of State could specify how that strategy fits with this motion in her reply.

It is interesting that the motion is a great example of what happens when women are represented within power structures. While women are in Parliament because they are qualified and have earned the right to be here, we cannot ignore the barriers currently faced by women in accessing and occupying certain roles. There are barriers to women who are carers, or mothers of children with disabilities and for other women who cannot access the power structures they need. Representation is important because sometimes one can only understand things fully through lived experience and this topic is a perfect example. That is why, in the short term, gender quotas are needed to ensure that women like those who are here today, and, therefore, women's lived experiences, are properly heard within Parliament. We could also speculate if we missed period poverty for this long, what else are we missing when we do not have voices from, say, Traveller backgrounds or migrants represented?

Let us take the positivity and learning from this motion and expand it to other areas. We have much to gain.

This motion also highlights an ideological point that is so important and that is the crux of the different approaches of different parties and the alternative we in the left are trying to offer. This motion argues that no one chooses to menstruate and those who are struggling financially are facing a cost for looking after their essential health. What we are really saying is that healthcare should be based on need, not ability to pay. If a woman needs to access free sanitary products, she should be able to do so, end of story. It is our vision that this approach is broadened to become the ideology driving all of our healthcare decisions from seeing a psychologist to getting a spinal operation. These things should be based on need, not income.

The important work of tackling period poverty has already begun on the ground. In September last year, Councillor Sandra Duffy passed a motion for Derry City and Strabane District Council to provide free sanitary products. At the same time, Dublin City Council passed a similar motion. My colleague, Lynn Boylan, MEP, has called for sanitary products to be tested and regulated because of safety concerns, in particular with regard to "menstrual cups", which are environmentally friendly and are becoming popular in Ireland. Safety checks on these products are not currently carried out in Ireland. I am hopeful that this work together on the ground and in these Houses and in Europe will result in real and substantive change on the issue of period poverty. I thank the Oireachtas Women's Parliamentary Caucus and the background staff who worked extremely hard to get this motion to this stage today. I look forward to its full implementation.

I am sharing time with Senator Ruane, who has very graciously allowed me to kick off the first four minutes. I welcome the Minister of State and, in particular, Deputy Catherine Martin, who has given great leadership on this issue. I acknowledge that so many others in both Houses are responding positively to that.

I will start in Amsterdam, pass quickly through Bucharest and come back to rest here in Dublin. As a young teenager I read The Diary of Anne Frank, which was my first public understanding or reference to periods. She referred to her first period as her sweet secret. Whether it would always have been so for her is another day's work. It is notable that this subject can only be discussed in an open and public way on rare occasions. That was my first one. The rest of it was all boys' talk.

I was at a series of meetings relating to the European Disability Forum in Bucharest last weekend. I met Adriana Tontsch, a colleague who has been a champion for children with spina bifida and hydrocephalus in Romania. I had gone on a study visit with her many years ago where we visited various places and met families. Her work involved providing and funding shunts to drain fluid from babies' brains to save them. She took a call from a woman, which I did not understand. She told me afterwards that this was one of the mothers who said she could not come to the meeting that afternoon. I could not go to it either. It was a meeting with mothers and their children who are now coming into their teen years. The mother apologised for the fact that her daughter, who had just turned 11 - we will call her Nina for the sake of it - could not attend because she had just had her second period and her mother and her needed to support and mind each other. I said that this was a great coincidence because of what was happening in Ireland at that time. I reminded Adriana that she saved a child's life 11 years ago along with the lives of many others and now they are growing into young men and women who have a range of challenges. This issue will obviously be a challenge as well. Other contributors have referenced that in many ways.

Moving back to Ireland, Alannah Murray, who is a co-founder of Disabled Women of Ireland, made a few points to me. She asked me to highlight the figures showing that disabled people are more at risk of and experience more poverty, which clearly includes period poverty. Disabled people get periods. There are never any machines with sanitary products in disabled toilets. If a person with a disability such as a wheelchair user does manage to get into either a regular male or female toilet, the machines are always up too high and anyway being a wheelchair user or a person with restricted growth brings other issues. She said that Deputies might argue that in mentioning groups such as students, people in lower socioeconomic groups, etc., they were including people with disabilities. Boys, girls, men and women need to go hand in hand on this issue and be public on it. Products need to be available, as others have said, and free, and products need to be available in dispensing machines that are at the right height in disabled toilets.

Those four minutes do not count because Senator Dolan does not get any periods so we will go with eight minutes for me. I was delighted to let Senator Dolan go first. As we can see, there is a lack of men in the room today apart from Senator Warfield so it is important to have men who are willing to come in and have those conversations. Those euphemisms were created to avoid having to talk in front of men. From having conversations with my own friends about this motion, we found ourselves in fits of laughter about some of those euphemisms we have used over the years such as being in your flowers. A new one I heard yesterday is the commies are in the garden. Another example is the reds are playing at home this weekend. I thought that whatever about period poverty, we were definitely very creative in trying to hide the conversation from other people in a room.

I completely support this motion and its intent. I think mostly of homeless women with whom I have worked over the years. Even though many of the services in which I worked tried to provide sanitary products, there were many occasions where women made sanitary products themselves and ended up in hospital with really bad infections. I remember one woman making a sanitary product out of a stocking and being admitted to hospital for a good few days for surgery to save her life because the infection had spread. I remember that as one of the stark moments showing the desperation women face. It could have been because she was too embarrassed to come down and ask one of us for sanitary products and we were women working in the office. Having access to free sanitary products can save lives, never mind avoiding embarrassment. If we even look at the machines that exist in Leinster House, it involves paying €2 for one tampon or pad. That is the same across every single one of those machines in every building and institutions such as educational institutions. People are capitalising on that crisis moment where a woman needs to enter a bathroom to use a machine and she is charged that amount of money. Even as a 34-year-old woman, I can still find myself in a position where I can get a period and be so embarrassed that I would look at the chair I had just got up from and ask my friends whether everything is okay. I could have to tie jackets around my waist and run across town to get sanitary towels. I never really thought about it. It is actually quite traumatising to be like this in a room full of people.

We need to talk about this more when we talk about period poverty. We need to talk about the actual constant trauma that someone feels. It is not only about one individual. Let us imagine a mother has one, two, three, four or five daughters all at an age when they are not earning for themselves. The mother is not only buying sanitary products for herself but for her family of daughters. Prices and statistics have been given on how much sanitary products cost for an individual. The price could actually be doubled, tripled or quadrupled within a household that is already struggling to afford the basic necessities. One quote referred to €8,100 over the course of a person's lifetime. If we multiply that figure for a house full of girls, the figure would obviously be far more than that. We have to factor in pain relief as well. It is not only about the use of sanitary products but everything else that goes with it.

All the statistics have been given. The reasons this is so important have been given. I support the motion and I thank the two men who are here in the room to have the conversation. I would have preferred to see more male participation. Senator Lawlor has just arrived. He will say something inspirational in a moment.

Am I excluded, Senator?

You have to be here, a Chathaoirligh.

Senator Ruane is rather confident. She does not even know what I am going to say and yet she has thanked me for being here.

We know Senator Warfield's form.

I will not be opposing the motion. I commend the motion. It has been drafted by the parliamentary caucus - the women's caucus. It shows great leadership especially in terms of breaking down stigma. It also shows the progress that has been made in terms of the representation in these Houses. It reflects the importance of the recent lengthy national conversations we have had about women's rights. The great disadvantage of having a gender imbalance, or any imbalance, in these institutions is that the lived experience of people – in this case, women – does not get an equal hearing.

Senator Bacik mentioned the statistics. A total of 50.5% of the population in the State are women and yet only 22% of Deputies and 30% of Senators are women. It has been mentioned that there are not many men here. Some 70% of the representatives in the House are men but only three have turned up here today. There is a distinct lack of diversity in these Houses. This is highlighted by the fact that we do not have representation of people of colour, those from the Traveller community, people with disabilities, people seeking asylum or those from working class backgrounds. I could go on. Through the motion we are highlighting that when the House becomes more diverse we can diversify our opinions and make them genuinely representative.

Prior to the Dáil debate on this motion two weeks ago, menstruation was only mentioned in the Dáil 27 times. It was only mentioned four times in the sense of how periods relate to men in terms of bans on contraception and abortion. We have a historical aversion to talking about periods and anything to do with female reproductive biology. This serves only to stigmatise and shame people in society. Practices like churching come to mind, whereby women were cleansed after reproduction. Stigma is also commonplace in terms of having a long way to go.

As stated in the motion, some 60% of respondents to the Plan International survey said they believed that school did not adequately inform them about periods. We consistently hear a conversation on how people are being failed by relationships and sexuality education. People are probably not being failed in that respect but rather by the complete lack of relationships and sexuality education. I have mentioned this time and again in terms of sexual health in particular, but this is another issue where there is a knock-on effect because of a complete lack of relationships and sexuality education.

Stigma also remains in public policy. The State does not have a tampon tax. VAT is included on mooncups, a newly-emerging method of sanitary wear mentioned by others, including Senator Conway-Walsh. She also mentioned Lynn Boylan, MEP. Many of the mooncups currently being used are imported at a cheap price from Asian markets. These markets do not have safety checks or regulations although the materials used are medical grade silicone. For a product that is inserted into a sensitive and absorbent part of the body, this is particularly concerning and probably a consequence of period poverty in the context of women looking for the cheapest available options.

I wish to commend the work of Homeless Period Ireland and Tropical Popical. Those involved have done really great work in creating awareness of the difficulties involved for those who are homeless. The State must accept that it is not doing enough here. The current situation robs people of dignity and agency. Homeless Period Ireland is acting in the absence of effective action by the Government.

Direct provision has been mentioned. I wish to add my voice to the anxiety that Senators have regarding people in direct provision. I expect the Minister of State will address that as well.

I want to add my support to the motion. It is really a positive sign of how things are changing in Ireland that we are discussing more and more topics which had been kept, as my colleague described, in the space of euphemism and were not discussed. They are now coming into the realm. As mentioned by Senator Clifford-Lee, this is part of an opening up or a discussion of the fullness and reality of lived experience. This is about ensuring that is reflected in our debates and public policy.

Many of the issues have already been highlighted. I wish to join others in commending those in Homeless Period Ireland for their work. In particular I wish to commend Councillor Moynihan because I believe she put this on the agenda in Dublin and led the way in speaking about this issue.

There are some key issues that we need to look to. These include breaking the silence and looking at the affordability and accessibility of sanitary products. It is concerning when we look at Plan International Ireland's research because we can see that young people are particularly vulnerable. We need to think about young people, especially young people who may be on low social protection payments such as the reduced jobseeker's allowance. What does it mean if a person is accessing sanitary products out of that? What about other intersectional groups? Those who are homeless have been mentioned. I hope the Minister of State will be able to address that issue and the question of those in direct provision. That is a crucial issue given that we have had stasis. Today only a paltry amount of personal moneys are available for those in direct provision. The idea that sanitary products have to come out of that amount is a real concern.

My colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, mentioned those with a disability. It is one of those areas. Those with a disability have periods and in many cases are not always in a position of personal access or discretion. How do we ensure they are given the support and resources they need? This is a linked issue that I have discussed often with the Senator. Other related issues include adult incontinence and the supports, resources and materials given to carers in Ireland, many of whom may be caring for young people who are having periods, as well as for older people who need other sanitary and sanitation products.

As was rightly pointed out by Senator Bacik, this is part of the sustainable development goals. Sustainable development goal 5 relates to sanitation and goal 6 relates to gender equality.

Periods represent a large amount of time in every woman's life and indeed in the lives of many of those who may also be transgender. They represent a considerable period of life and we should consider the time and energy that is lost in terms of the working spaces.

I wish to commend in particular the international aspect of the motion.

It recognises that this is an international issue. I join in commending the young people who are here as part of the Politics Needs Women competition. They travelled to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. I also had the opportunity to travel to the Commission on the Status of Women with the European parliamentary forum on sexual and reproductive rights. One of the issues being raised by women's groups around the world is the issue of period poverty.

This is an example of how Ireland should and can continue to embrace the gender budgeting process. An event held jointly by Ireland and Uganda addressed the fact that young women in Uganda lose four or five days of education each month because of the practical issues and hassles associated with having a period as well as the stigma attached to it. Sanitary products and a shift in how budgets within the education system are allocated locally have contributed to greater education for younger women in Kenya. These measures are expected to have a similar effect in Uganda. This is a major international issue. Ireland is not limited to leading the way in dealing with it domestically. It can also lead the way in incorporating this issue into international development and ensuring these products are supported. Given the recent referendum, Ireland has an opportunity to be much more dynamic in promoting sexual and reproductive rights through our international development programmes.

Directives which require value added tax, VAT, to be levied on sanitary products create an obstacle for other countries across the European Union. Ireland does not currently levy VAT on sanitary products, which is positive. I would like this country to take the lead in supporting women across the rest of Europe by ensuring that an out-of-date directive that does not reflect the reality of life is changed and countries across Europe move to a 0% VAT rate.

I apologise. It was not my intention to be the last person to speak. It certainly should not be a man who concludes the debate on this topic. I know the Minister of State will also comment.

While I agree with the motion and the legislation, as Senator Alice-Mary Higgins has highlighted, this is an opportunity for us to set a standard not just here but internationally, as we have done so many times in the past. We can use Irish Aid to bring forward legislation in countries we support, particularly in Africa, to provide sanitary facilities for women.

This debate is part of a conversation we should be having with regard to free contraceptive care. It is all part and parcel of what we need to discuss and bring forward. I have brought ideas for integrated primary care contraceptive schemes before the Minister of State too many times. So far, nothing has been done about it. It has been almost three months since the legislation on abortion was passed and we still have not moved on it. I would like to see some movement on that and on sanitary products. We should be a leader on this for the rest of the world, using our influence and our Irish Aid money to assist other countries in bringing this reform forward.

In the 1980s, I worked for several years in a mixed boarding school in the south Pacific. As teachers, we provided free sanitary products because many of the pupils came from outlying islands and did not have the necessary facilities. We paid for the sanitary products used by the women there. Out in the villages the situation was totally different. Products were not even used - women just went away for a couple of days. I felt at the time that we should use our influence. If there is a positive outcome here, we should use that positivity elsewhere in the world. Irish Aid money should be used to assist in that.

I thank Deputy Catherine Martin for raising this issue in the Dáil, as well as Senators Bacik, Clifford-Lee, Noone, Walsh, Dolan, Ruane, Warfield, Higgins and Lawlor. This very topical subject has been included in my brief in the past few months. I have had time to reflect on some of the issues raised. I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach and the Seanad for bringing the debate to this Chamber. I congratulate the students who were here previously. They have now left, but I commend them on their forward thinking attitude.

I will refer to a few issues, starting with some of the points that have been raised. I thank the women’s caucus for highlighting the period poverty issue, which was also debated in the Dáil last week. It is great to have an opportunity to discuss this. I am sure we would all agree that it deserves more focus and attention in society. Period poverty, the inability to afford female sanitary products, is a serious health and equality issue in many countries worldwide and is something that we as a Government should look at. There can be significant consequences for individual women and girls in missing school, college or work because it is the wrong time of the month and they have issues with paying for products. There are wider effects on society from people missing out on work and education. This affects their ability to reach their full potential. What is more, surveys have shown high levels of shame and embarrassment about periods. This means people feel they cannot talk about their needs, which affects their mental well-being. It is not easy being a teenager at the best of times. Periods are new to young teenage girls and not all of them feel they can talk to a parent, friend or teacher. If they cannot do so, the problem remains unsolved.

As Senator Ruane noted, being unable to change pads or tampons regularly or using the wrong sort of product can increase the risk of infection. There is also an issue with physical activity. We know that teenage girls as a group are not active enough. Anxiety over periods can mean they miss out on more sport, physical education and activities, which is bad for their long-term health and well-being. The cost to a girl or woman of managing periods, arising from the cost of sanitary products and pain relief, has been estimated at more than €200 a year. This cost is faced by women for several decades. Some Senators have previously mentioned this. Period poverty and the anxiety that goes with it are hitting the most vulnerable groups in society, namely, teenage girls, the homeless, women in centres of detention and those who are less well-off. Several other countries have recently been working on plans to address period poverty. These include a recent pledge by the UK to supply products in secondary schools. In recent years, Canada, some US states and India have removed goods and services taxes from sanitary products.

The Minister for Health wrote to the Minister for Finance about VAT rates on sanitary products before budget 2019. In Ireland, tampons and sanitary towels are taxed at 0% VAT. These products were taxed at this rate before an EU VAT harmonisation agreement in the 1990s, at which point Ireland secured an exemption to keep the 0% rate. Unfortunately, newer products are not included in this agreement. This omission must be addressed as soon as possible.

There have been some local initiatives recently to address period poverty. Dublin City Council passed a resolution on period poverty last year and is running a pilot scheme to provide free products in four local recreation centres. Senator Bacik spoke about this. The council intends to expand the scheme if it is successful. I thank the council for its good work in this area.

Period poverty affects inclusion, health and well-being but it is also an equality concern. The cost of products adds to gender inequality and to the inequalities resulting from poverty. However, the Government aims to treat all citizens as equal and to address inequalities. This is a core part of the Healthy Ireland framework.

This issue is also relevant to the Government's work to implement our national strategy for women and girls, which is led by our colleagues in the Department of Justice and Equality. Under this important strategy, the Department of Health participates in the implementation committee and is progressing other health policies relating to women's health and well-being. We are also developing a women's health action plan in collaboration with the HSE and the National Women's Council of Ireland.

As a Government, we need to put measures in place to deal with period poverty. I will add on a personal level that both gender and social equality are important. There is no two ways about it - this will require a response across Government as it touches on areas managed by many different Departments. All the main Departments, the HSE and other organisations, such as the National Women's Council of Ireland, are collaborating on the national strategy for women and girls. This is an obvious and useful forum for period poverty measures to be considered. My officials have been in touch with their colleagues in the Department of Justice and Equality, who are in full agreement that period poverty will be discussed within the framework of the national strategy for women and girls. Senator Conway-Walsh brought this up. While it may not be specifically mentioned in the women's and girls' strategy, we have agreed with our officials in the Department of Justice and Equality that period poverty will be on the agenda for the next meeting for the relevant Departments to consider particular actions.

I will reflect on some of the comments that were made during the debate. I grew up in an era when talking about one's sexuality and one's periods was taboo. Even speaking to one's parents was sometimes very difficult. As a young teenager, I crossed many borders talking to young people, particularly in the youth club, about period poverty, their sexuality and other sexual health issues. I believe we have come a long distance since then. Education has changed in this country. The openness to speak out and have a conversation about any sexual health issue is very relevant to young people today. They are not afraid to speak about this. It used to be that it was private, not spoken about and taboo. However, my husband and I know, as our daughters' parents and their children's grandparents, that we all have a huge role to play in talking about children's health, particularly young women's health. Now that men play such a significant role in family life, rearing children for various reasons related to women being at work as well, and that men and women have a more hands-on approach to rearing children, it is imperative that men - and they are doing it - talk to their children at a different age and from a different angle about all their sexual health issues and issues relating to periods and so on. We have come a long way; we have a lot more to finish.

As a Minister of State in the Department of Health, I look forward to contributing to developing actions that tackle period poverty and help women and girls to participate in education, employment, sport and social activities to their full potential. Senator Clifford-Lee asked me to promise something. I will not promise her anything; I will commit to something. This has been ignored and left in the cupboard for long enough now. It is very important that I do anything I can within my remit, and together with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Department of Justice and Equality. I will do so. This is not a promise; it is a commitment. There must be action on this, and we as a Government will not oppose the motion.

I thank the Minister of State for that very strong commitment at the end of her contribution. We will hold her to it. I am honoured to have proposed this motion and to respond on behalf of the women's caucus. It is an all-party motion, and I thank all speakers for their contributions to this important, productive and worthwhile debate. I commend again Deputy Catherine Martin, who has led on this from the start as chair of the caucus. I commend all the others who have worked on this issue in Ireland and elsewhere. I refer to Homeless Period Ireland, Tropical Popical, Andrew Horan, who was mentioned, Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, who led at Dublin City Council, and Plan International, which has been leading on this in terms of women in developing countries. A significant volume of work has been done.

The motion and debate are an important step forward, as was the debate in the Dáil, to address both the practical issues of period poverty and the lack of affordability of sanitary products and the cultural issue of the stigma, shame and taboo surrounding speaking about periods. It is a taboo about speaking not just about periods, but also about period pain. Senator Higgins reminded me of the huge issue for so many women of endometriosis, something that so many women must deal with on an ongoing basis, yet, again, it is not spoken about and is very much linked with the issue of periods. We need to talk about this, and today was an important step on the road to making this much more spoken about and to raising awareness of it. We need to raise awareness of a range of issues surrounding periods, including intersectional issues, and we have done that today. The motion also does this by raising issues in respect of homeless women and women in direct provision, who face particular challenges in dealing with periods and period poverty. We also need to see issues of period poverty as part of a package of measures. This was addressed by a number of speakers when they spoke about women's health measures more generally, such as free contraception care and sexual and reproductive health.

I am glad the Minister of State will speak directly with the Minister, Deputy Harris, about this. It is also, of course, an issue of education, and again, her colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, will also need to examine how schools are dealing with this and incorporating education on periods with both boys and girls. It was important we had the school groups in with us today - those great finalists from the Politics Needs Women competition. I am proud to wear my Vótáil 100 badge because those students engaged in that competition as part of our centenary celebrations of winning women the right to vote 101 years ago. It is part of a multifaceted response. I know there has been much debate about sports facilities, FAI stadiums and other sporting facilities also needing to provide free sanitary products, as we have seen on the pilot basis by Dublin City Council and other councils.

Within the motion we have made some practical asks of the Government, and I will highlight perhaps two of them which were highlighted in the debate. The first is the need to provide free sanitary products in State-run facilities, not just council facilities, such as educational institutions, detention centres and so on. Let us start in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Someone mentioned the cost of sanitary products in the Houses of the Oireachtas, in Leinster House. We can all move forward on this through the women's caucus. That is one very practical measure. Second, we must address the issue of VAT. As the Minister of State said in her comprehensive response, this is something we have addressed to some degree here in Ireland, but we need to try to change things at EU level on the VAT directive. We also need to address the issue of new products to ensure they, too, can be zero-rated for VAT.

Finally, I was struck by comments made by Senator Dolan about the lack of reference to periods in literature, including in fiction, and so many other aspects of our culture, and not just in political discourse. That is very true. We have seen so little reference to something that is a fact of life for half the population during the middle four decades of our lives. In fact, there was reference in a cultural context to the issue in the Seanad last September, when we had an event for Culture Night as part of our Vótáil 100 programme. We had poetry readings, and one of those who spoke, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, who is an Irish-language poet, recited a poem, "While Bleeding", in English. I thought the text of that poem might be a good way to finish, to remind us of our common experience as women and of the need to speak more about that common experience, and to share it with our male colleagues - I am glad there were male colleagues present for the debate and that they participated in it:

I am wrapped in the weight of old red: ...

lipstick blotted on tissue,

bitten lips, a rough kiss,

all the red bled into pads and rags,

the weight of red, the wait for red, that we share.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 3.40 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.