"I put diapers instead": faced with period poverty, some women are forced into the D system

With inflation, hygiene weighs more and more heavily in the budget of the French. And for women, menstruation leads to a double penalty. As World Menstrual Hygiene Day takes place on 28 May, the most precarious people often have to sacrifice certain expenses related to the body, even if it means putting their physical, hygienic and mental health at risk.

The association Rules Elementaries estimates that menstruation costs an average of 8000 € to a menstruating person over a lifetime. © Louise Huet / RFI

Text by: Louise Huet


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Pressed into a fleece sofa, Bintou* slowly stores in her bag the products she has just received. Around her, children weave laughingly between slides, wooden horses and cushions that dot the floor. This Tuesday in April, Bintou is one of five women registered to pick up her parcel at the MaMaMa association. In the heart of the city of Saint-Denis (93), the organization has been fighting since 2020 against the hygienic precariousness of mothers and infants, by providing them with food and hygiene packages.

In this package, everything is there: soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, diapers, periodical protection, baby wipes ... Here, everything is done to relieve, for a few minutes, fragile mothers. "We create a safe space, where they don't have to be hyper-vigilant with their children. We don't just do quantitative distribution, we try to follow the mother in her journey and maintain a social link with her, "says Sara, in civic service at MaMaMa, while she shows us this large shed of 1500 m2 where their stock is stored.

Bintou picked up his hygiene package in his bag in the reception area of the MaMaMa association, in Seine-Saint-Denis (93), on April 24, 2023. © Louise Huet / RFI

Because outside this haven of peace, the women beneficiaries are in extreme precariousness. Most depend on the emergency housing of 115, are waiting for their papers, and chain odd jobs under the table. For them, menstrual hygiene is not always the priority.

The kit that Bintou collects for his family of four children does not last him "more than a week". So, when the 35-year-old mother overcomes it, she switches to system D. "When I run out of diapers for my children, I go to see the neighbors, I ask people at the social hotel if they can help me out," she sighs, wrapped up in her white down jacket, her eyes tired, and hidden behind her frizzy locks of brown hair.

For the sanitary pads we are given, I leave everything to my 12-year-old daughter who is already menstruating. When I don't have enough, I put diapers instead.

One in three French people limits their hygiene consumption

This extreme situation, Bintou is far from being the only one to live it. In 2023, hygienic precariousness is no longer the prerogative of the very precarious. According to the "Hygiene and Precariousness" barometer of the association Dons Solidaires, "inflation pushes one in three French people to give up the purchase of certainbody products". In question: the increase in the prices of hygiene products, which jumped by 8.6% between March 2022 and 2023, according to NielsenIQ.

The prototype of the contents of the hygiene kits distributed by the MaMaMa association to women beneficiaries. © Louise Huet / RFI

And for women, it's double jeopardy. In one year, sanitary napkin boxes have increased by 25 cents, all brands combined. For tampons, it's 30 cents more. Since 2020, the association Rules Elementary estimates that the number of people in a situation of period poverty has doubled in France. "Today, 4 million people cannot protect themselves sufficiently during their period due to lack of means or lack of information, and therefore resort to sometimes dangerous products," warns Elena Gautier, one of the leaders of Elementary Rules, which acts against the taboo of menstruation.

Cotton, rag, fabrics, old clothes, newspaper, tissues, toilet paper... so many alternative methods that some are seizing up, without any other solution. "I often have to keep towels for more than a day because I don't have them anymore and it's too expensive. It disgusts me, but that's the way it is," says Eva, a 21-year-old French-Moroccan student, after a distribution organized by the Cop'1 student association in Paris, where she was able to pick up a pack of sanitary napkins.

« I could go three days without showering »

In addition, the consequences of inadequate menstrual hygiene are dramatic. "The use of unsuitable sanitary protection or stored too long can lead to irritation, blisters, vaginal or urinary tract infections, mycoses, and even toxic shock for a tampon worn too long," says Sarah Peybale, a nurse from Lyon.

Above all, without washing products, self-esteem is hit hard. "I could go two to three days without showering. I had to go to public showers," says Assata, a volunteer at MaMaMa. For five years, from 2005 to 2010, this 41-year-old Cameroonian lived outside in Aubervilliers.

Since I didn't have access to menstrual products, I'd go to the mall bathroom and take toilet paper to put in my panties. I was ashamed, I felt dirty.

Today, Assata has escaped. With her golden earrings and wide smile, this former beneficiary of associations is now responsible for MaMaMa's volunteers. Since January 2022, she has been coming every day to help a few hours tidy up the stock, make infant feeding packages and prepare hygiene kits for other women. The ones she herself would have needed more than a decade ago.

Left, Assata, head of volunteers and former beneficiary, next to Sara, in civic service, in the premises of MaMaMa, April 24, 2023. © Louise Huet / RFI

Feelings of shame and social self-exclusion

How to keep self-confidence when everything reminds us that we are "dirty"? For Aline Boeuf, doctoral assistant at the Department of Sociology at the University of Geneva, this third of French people who sacrifice their consumption of hygiene highlights a form of class violence. "The people most affected are the most precarious and stigmatized on a daily basis. They are reminded that they do not correspond to social norms and that they are in financial, physical, and aesthetic failure," she argues. On top of that, "dirt and smell are social stigmas that exclude you in the long run.


Rules Élémentaires confronts precisely these prejudices. This Saturday afternoon, the association's team sets up its trolley at the exit of a supermarket, puts up its explanatory posters, and stands at every corner of the shelves to encourage customers to buy, and then give, menstrual products. After three hours, results of the races: 3000 sanitary protections collected, which will then be delivered to partner associations, to redistribute them to the beneficiary public.

To convince customers to give sanitary protection, the Elementary Rules team is positioned both at the entrance of this Parisian supermarket, and at the exit to receive donations, on April 15, 2023. © Louise Huet / RFI

Because some of these beneficiaries make it a point of honor to have enough menstrual protection, regardless of their income. "Sanitary napkins are a priority for me. I always make sure I have enough, even if it means buying less food or sacrificing meals. Even if I don't have anything, I have to be clean," says Aya*, sitting on one of the sofas in MaMaMa's room, as she rocks her ten-month-old daughter and her seven-year-old son vents in the dedicated space.

In her oversized jeans and her big black jacket that she holds against her, this 25-year-old mother says she goes to the association once a month to pick up her package and some extras. In order not to neglect these damaged women, the MaMaMa team makes it a point of honor to offer cosmetics and new clothes from time to time. "We want to allow the mother to have access to products that everyone has. It may seem trivial but it's super important to reconnect with your body, rebuild yourself and feel integrated into society. " says Sara, a volunteer at MaMaMa. With her face sagging but her head held high, Aya assures him: "The dignity of my body is all I have left.


Public Health Issue

Lack of hygienic protection: a major public health problem, which according to the associations, can also lead to serious inequalities at school and work. Because one in two girls has already missed school because of their period in France, according to a study by the NGO Plan International and OpinionWay in 2022. And the issue is far from being limited to women. "For all the little girls who are going to have their period at their dads' house. It would be nice if they knew how to talk about it, that they could answer questions, that they had garbage cans available, "suggests Elena Gautier.

For Aline Bœuf, if one in three teenagers is ashamed of having their period and if they have so little information about menstrual hygiene, it is because society's view of women's bodies is uncompromising.

There are still as many injunctions against women to cleanliness, to have a smooth body and makeup, to erase defects, to hide hair, pores, blood. And it installs a logic of discomfort with its own smells, droppings and menstrual flow. Some may go so far as to develop a kind of grudge against their status as women.

- Aline Boeuf

Thus, in addition to collections, Rules Elementaries imagines possible long-term solutions: the installation of tampon and padd dispensers in schools, the implementation of an annual "period poverty" check for the most disadvantaged. Or free protection for the 4 million people concerned.

The French government is slowly taking up the subject. For the time being, he has rather bet on reimbursement, and not free. On 6 March, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced that reusable protection in pharmacies will be reimbursed for those under 25, from 2024. This is "very good news" for Elementary Rules, which remains cautious about the conditions of application of the measure. "It's obviously not enough, but with every small step you take, you have to celebrate." In addition to acting in favor of purchasing power, the association keeps repeating: the main thing is above all to "continue tirelessly to inform and raise awareness, women and men, to break the omerta around menstruation.


*First names have been changed

" READ ALSO – Menstrual leave in France: soon a bill, mixed associations

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