President Jair Bolsonaro’s decision to block a plan to distribute free sanitary pads and tampons to disadvantaged girls and women has been met with outrage in Brazil, where period poverty is estimated to keep one in four girls out of school.
Bolsonaro vetoed part of a bill that would have given sanitary products at no charge to groups including homeless people, prisoners and teenage girls at state schools. It was expected to benefit 5.6 million women and was part of a bigger package of laws to promote menstrual health, which has been approved by legislators.
Tabata Amaral, of the Brazilian Socialist party (PSB) and one of 34 cross-party federal deputies who co-authored the bill, said the president had shown his “contempt for the dignity of vulnerable women” by vetoing the plan last week.
“Bolsonaro says this project is ‘against the public interest’ – I say that what is against the public interest is that girls lose around six weeks of school a year because they are menstruating,” Amaral told the Guardian.
She was among politicians and other groups outraged by justifications given for the veto – including that giving free sanitary products to poor girls and women would “favour a certain group”. Many expressed their anger using the hashtag #LivreParaMenstruar (free to menstruate).
Jacqueline Moraes, vice-governor of the south-eastern state of Espírito Santo, tweeted: “Is it ‘a privilege’ for a poor woman to have the right to a tampon? No! It’s social policy, public health!”
“The veto is absurd and inhumane,” said Rozana Barroso, president of the Brazilian Union of Secondary Students (UBES). “Many students are prevented from studying because they stop attending school due to not having a sanitary pad.
“Have you ever imagined using paper, newspaper or breadcrumbs to contain menstruation? This is a harsh reality, especially among young people. In the midst of the pandemic and worsening social inequality this situation has got even worse.”
In May, a report by the UN children’s fund, Unicef, and population fund, UNFPA, found that 713,000 girls in Brazil live without access to a bathroom; about 4 million girls don’t have adequate hygiene facilities at school, such as sanitary pads and soap, and at least 200,000 girls lack even the minimum hygiene facilities at school, such as bathrooms.
Amaral disputed the government’s claim that the source of the 84m reais (£11m) a year to cover the plan was unclear, saying it had been specified it would be funded by the health ministry and national penitentiary fund. She is leading the campaign to overturn the veto.
She noted that the health ministry has to pay for costly treatments and surgeries resulting from complications after women use items such as towels and old clothes during their period. Half of Brazilian women reported resorting to such alternatives, she said.
Barroso is mobilising students to collect sanitary products to give out at schools. “This is not the country we want and that is why through the UBES, which represents more than 40 million students, we helped build this bill and we will fight this veto.”
• This article was amended on 11 October 2021. An earlier version said Tabata Amaral was currently a member of the Democratic Labour party. She is now a member of the Brazilian Socialist party.