Periods. Not just a women’s issue, but a women’s issue nonetheless.

One of Welsh Labour’s pledges in their Manifesto for the May 2021 Senedd Elections was that they would “embed period dignity in schools and expand … free period provision in communities and the private sector”.

Embedding period dignity is an awkward phrase and something that is likely to be easier said than done. But awkward language in relation to sex equality and women’s and girls’ health is nothing new for Welsh Government.

In December 2021 they asked the Senedd to approve a Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) Code that didn’t use the words boy, girl, man or woman at all. The preference for convoluted language that results in confusing and impenetrable policy documents has continued with Period Dignity Strategic Action Plan, which is out to public consultation until 12th January 2022. Other organisations successfully centre women and girls – or in the case of prostate cancer, men – in their campaigns, materials and resources while still acknowledging the need to be inclusive.

But not Welsh Government. Inclusion for them means once again avoiding the words girl and woman as much as possible and preferring the impersonal “person who menstruates” or oblique references to “those who menstruate”. It’s no wonder that many women have had enough.

How can a government hope to normalise periods, increase menstrual health literacy and end stigma, taboo and shame around this specifically female experience if they are too cowed to address the overwhelming majority of the intended beneficiaries of the Strategic Action Plan directly? They claim to be “a feminist government” but are ashamed to name us. It seems a strange way of trying to embed dignity or to include.

The consultation on this Action Plan is very welcome. There are some good people involved in work on the ground in Wales, and at a policy level, to improve period dignity, inform women and girls from wide-ranging backgrounds about their bodies and promote initiatives to address the impact of poverty and financial exclusion on their ability to afford access to the products they need to manage their periods. There is also positive work around enabling more girls and women to approach services that can help them if they have concerns about any aspect of their menstrual health. The commitment to promoting wider use of plastic-free and reusable products is also ground-breaking. This progress is undermined by the misguided attempt to be more inclusive.

One look at the list of Period Dignity Roundtable members on page 7 of the Integrated Impact Assessment gives an indication of why this is happening. Among the list of period dignity and environmental activists, women’s groups and health organisations is a lobby group whose generous funding from Welsh Government gives them the luxury of being able to attend whatever working groups they like while other organisations are focused on direct service delivery to some of the most marginalised women, girls and communities in Wales. And who doesn’t want to be respectful and nice when, despite a lack of hard evidence, the narrative that this is for the benefit of another group described as ‘the most marginalised and vulnerable members of Welsh society’ is so regularly trotted out by our politicians as well as the lobbyists.

Feminists are once again put in an impossible position. Do they speak up for women or risk the prospect of vilification and abuse? Women who stand their ground are put under pressure. The fact that this strategic action plan exists is without doubt a significant achievement. But you have to ask whether the purpose of this document has been subverted. Is it to ‘embed period dignity’ and ‘normalise periods’ or to normalise and promote the language used by a particular small sub-section of metropolitan society?

The adverse consequences of deliberately adapting language to be impersonal, ideological, based on body parts and bodily functions, or being ‘gender-neutral’ on an issue so clearly related to biological sex will be experienced by the very groups a Period Dignity Strategy needs to reach. The number of women and girls who are failed by this approach – women and girls with limited English or Welsh; women and girls with disabilities; women and girls with learning disabilities; women and girls who have experienced trauma and abuse; and women and girls from some faith and cultural backgrounds – is far larger than the small number who might feel discomfort at the language because they have a different gender identity.

So, please Welsh Government. Speak to us. Say our name.