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Austria has a period poverty problem. Here’s why

Women's sanitary products on sale at a small pharmacy in London..
Women's sanitary products on sale at a small pharmacy in London.. Copyright AP Photo/Alastair Grant
Copyright AP Photo/Alastair Grant
By Daniel Harper
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Sanitary products are too expensive for many women while sexual education is also too outdated, NGOs say.

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"I'm menstruating 12 times a year for an average of 30-40 years so why should I pay horrendous amounts of money for it?" Iris, a 26-year-old resident of Vienna, Austria, pondered.

The young woman is among the 79% of Austrian women who said they’d like to see period products become free, instead of spending roughly over €3,000 in their lifetime

According to a recent survey by Plan International, a children and women’s rights NGO, one in three women in Austria finds that "their monthly period expenses are a financial burden for them. The small Alpine country of just under 9 million inhabitants counts half a million women in poverty. 

There have been cases of women, particularly the homeless, using socks as a cheaper alternative to sanitary products. 

Period poverty doesn’t just refer to the financial aspect of women’s periods, but also to the lack of access to sanitary products, education on menstrual hygiene and waste management. 

'It's a big taboo'

Iris, for instance, told Euronews she learnt about the different sanitary products available outside of the school system, like many Austrians. “I was taught about alternatives for sanitary products through the internet and my friends basically."

The Austrian Social Ministry stated in its Women’s Health Action Plan released last year that the country has a low level of health literacy when compared internationally and correlated low economic status with insufficient health literacy.

Education in sexual health is seen as necessary to not only teach young women about what’s happening biologically, help them understand the best sanitary products to use and their alternatives and how to use them safely but also expose men to these issues, and normalise what is often seen as an ‘off limits’ topic.

Vienna-based sexologist, Ursula Wilms-Hoffmann, has been working as an educator within Austrian schools for years with the aim of making sure women are educated about their bodies but also the variations in menstruation products.

“Sexual health needs to be improved a lot," she told Euronews, “It’s a big taboo [in Austria]. I don’t know why really, but it’s getting better."

The gap in communication on how to address this issue is often between the federal Parliament and the individual regions, with each region rolling out different solutions. 

Vienna set up a free pick-up box for sanitary products within the city during the winter of 2021/22 and distributed 80,604 tampons and 94,960 pads in total. In the eastern region of Vorarlberg menstruation products were made free in state schools, one of the few such cases within Europe to enact such a policy.

The Value Added Tax (VAT) on women’s hygiene products was also lowered by parliament from 20% to 10% in 2021.

'A lot of the books are old'

"When it comes to awareness with sanitary products, we also take a look at Germany, where the situation is similar," Rihab Toumi, the president of the Austrian National Youth Council (BJV), an organisation that legally represents the youth of Austria, told Euronews. 

Germany, Austria's much larger northern neighbour, has similar problems when it comes to period poverty with 23% of women surveyed by Plan International in 2022 saying that the expenses for menstrual hygiene products were a financial burden.

This is despite the VAT on menstrual products being reduced in 2020 from 19% to 7%. 

The similarities don't end there.

Strawberry Week, an organisation aiming to change the public perception of menstruation whilst also advocating for more sustainable products, works in schools in both countries.

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"A lot of the books are old books, and a lot is missed out," the organisation's director, Rika Mader, told Euronews. 

"Mostly it’s young men who don’t realise how expensive and non-sustainable period products are. There’s a lot of people who need to be convinced it’s not a luxury product," she added.

Strawberry Week gives support to young women and has a German language educative platform called ‘Ready for Red’ to help fill in the blanks left by the national and regional curriculums.

The BJV has been an active player in trying to get the Austrian government's policy to reflect the need of Austrian women for sanitary hygiene products to be cheaper and more widely available, with varying degrees of success.

They were big advocates for the lowering of the VAT on period products in 2021 and are also working on changing the school curriculum. 

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But there are currently no bills or plans within parliament to further address period poverty issues meaning that although the situation is better than it was a decade ago, there is still a long road ahead that involves teaching men, as well as women, about the true cost of menstruation.

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