16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence: Period Poverty

16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence: Period Poverty

10th December 2020

Have you heard of ‘period poverty’?

If the answer is ‘no’, who could blame you?

Period poverty should not exist. It does not stand to reason that in 2020, some women and girls cannot afford the basic dignity of menstrual hygiene.

‘Period poverty’ denotes: a lack of access to sanitary products because of economic contraints; a lack of education around menstrual health; shame, stigma and taboo associated with menstruation.

No woman or girl chooses her period; it chooses her. Her human right to dignity is not (should not be) contingent upon her menstrual status.

You might have seen posters hanging on public toilet doors alerting you to the reality that in parts of Africa and Asia, girls may resort to using rags because they cannot afford sanitary towels during their periods.

What you may not have realised, is that girls and women around the corner from us here in the UK are struggling to afford basic menstrual care products (Plan International, 2017).

A family struggling to fill mouths with food will inevitably struggle to find funds for menstrual products. The UK charity Freedom4Girls, which is based in Leeds, began in response to the urgent need for menstrual product provision for girls in East Africa – but quickly realised that girls on their doorstep needed their help too.

Speaking to the BBC, one of the girls helped by Freedom4Girls described her predicament before she received assistance:

I wrapped a sock around my underwear just to stop the bleeding, because I didn't want to get shouted at. And I wrapped a whole tissue roll around my underwear, just to keep my underwear dry until I got home. I once Sellotaped tissue to my underwear. I didn't know what else to do.” (BBC, 2017)

A report conducted in 2018 found that on average, over 137,700 girls a year miss school because they can’t afford sanitary products. The study found that on average, these girls missed five days of school a year due to period poverty (Independent, 2018).

Period poverty doesn’t just impact on schoolgirls. It impacts upon families too: 6% of parents polled admitted stealing to fund sanitary products for their daughters. More than 20% told of having to go without something in order to buy menstrual hygiene products for their children. 1 in 10 parents said they had been forced to send their daughters to school without sanitary protection, even though they knew they needed it.

The money that goes into managing periods extends beyond the cost of sanitary products. For many, the monthly cycle also necessitates pain management. In households where money is scarce, buying sanitary towels and painkillers is impracticable – so girls and women can find themselves literally incapacitated for 3-5 days every month.

On top of that, sanitary products have been subject to the so-called ‘tampon tax’ for decades, which is finally going to be scrapped at the end of this year. The ‘tampon tax’ refers to the 5% VAT applied to sanitary products, due to these articles being considered ‘non-essential, luxury items’. (The VAT rate for these items used to be 17.5%!)

Charity The Bloody Good Period estimates that periods cost the average woman in the UK £4,800 over her lifetime, amounting to approximately £128 a year. (Bloody Good Period, 2020)

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, more and more women and girls are facing period poverty; in drastic cases resorting to the use of newspaper, pillow cases and tea towels to manage menstrual hygiene.

The Bloody Good Period usually distributes 5,000 packs of period products a month. In the first three months of the lockdown, it distributed over 23,000 – close to five times more than normal.

Thankfully, UK nations have begun taking steps to put a full stop to period poverty.

NHS England has promised free sanitary products for all female hospital patients who request them. Early in 2020, the Department for Education introduced a scheme to make period products available to students at state-funded primary and secondary schools in England, including state-funded colleges. However, during the months that schools were shut due to the pandemic, this progressive scheme was rendered redundant. Furthermore, the scheme leaves behind private school pupils who may not be able to afford sanitary products – like those from low-income households whose education is funded by scholarships and bursaries. In addition, due to quieted publicisation, many of those who are eligible are not aware of the scheme; less than 40% have signed up.

On this matter, Scotland is blazing a trail far ahead of England. There, 1 in 4 women experiences period poverty (the UK average is 1 in 10). Responding to the need, in November, Scotland became the first nation in the world to mandate all schools, colleges and universities to provide period products for free. The new legislation also grants the Scottish Parliament the power to make other public bodies supply period products at no cost for those who need them. This is a precedent that other UK nations would do well to imitate.

Wales, too, is breaking new ground in the march against period poverty. This year the Welsh Government designated over £3.3m funding to period product provision for all female primary and secondary school pupils. NHS Wales will also provide sanitary towels to female patients on their wards.

In Northern Ireland, there is currently no government-funded scheme in place to tackle period poverty in educational settings, although one NI Local Authority has pledged to make sanitary products available in some of its public buildings. Although promising, this is clearly not enough. During the first four months of the lockdown, one NI-based charity reported a surge of 135% in requests from food banks for period products. 

What is TLG doing?

TLG Education Centres provide free sanitary products in the girls’ toilets so that those that need them can access them without shame.

What can you do?

Perhaps when you donate to your local food bank, you can consider dropping in a fresh pack of sanitary towels if you can afford it. Of course, let’s also keep talking about periods and period poverty. It’s about time we removed the shame and stigma around menstruation. Period.

Ruth Akinradewo

Ruth Akinradewo

Ruth Akinradewo has a background in language-related roles, having studied French and Italian at Oxford University. In her time at Oxford, Ruth wrote and spoke extensively about social injustice – notably about racism, for national newspaper The Voice. Ruth is passionate about social justice: in addition to her role within TLG, Ruth is an Ambassador for Press Red, a Christian charity which seeks to raise awareness about gender-based violence. She is also a trustee for a Christian charity providing shelter to migrant women fleeing domestic abuse, who under current legislation have no recourse to public funds.

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