What if you couldn’t afford period products?

I stumbled across period poverty by accident. Through an online article, I read that women and girls who were struggling to afford menstrual products were choosing to stay at home, or use makeshift alternatives (socks, rags, toilet paper) to manage their period. I found it difficult to imagine not having access to items which, for many women, are a standard purchase.

Period poverty caught the media’s attention in late 2016, following the film I, Daniel Blake, which features a woman stealing sanitary towels. In March 2017, reports of Leeds schoolgirls regularly missing school because they were unable to afford menstrual products were published. By April 2017, Amika George launched the #FreePeriods movement, calling for the government to provide sanitary wear to those children in receipt of free school meals.

Despite this early action, the issue lacked data to illustrate the scale of the problem. In August 2017, Plan International UK surveyed women aged 14 – 21 and found that one in ten girls were unable to afford sanitary products, one in seven had to borrow products from a friend, and more than a quarter used a product longer than its intended use due to cost. Period poverty is a big problem.

Many campaigns have now sprung up to spread awareness and address the issue. Alongside the #FreePeriods movement, there are campaigns such as Bloody Good Period, The Homeless Period, and the Leeds based Freedom4Girls. The profile of period poverty was ramped up when, in December 2017, activists took part in The Pink Protest outside Westminster. This received support from celebrities, including Daisy Lowe and Adwoa Aboah.

Period poverty then went political. Many of the campaigns, such as #PeriodPotential, call on the government to tackle the issue. Scotland is now piloting a scheme providing free sanitary products to women on low incomes. The Department of Education has launched a survey of schools to investigate period poverty further. Plan International UK proposed that the government introduce a P-Card, which would work in a similar way to a C-Card, so young people could access free products. Period poverty has also been highlighted by the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, and Labour has announced that, if they come to power, they would provide free products in schools and homeless shelters.

It’s great that people are now talking about period poverty. We must not forget, however, that the problem is socioeconomic issue. A pack of 20 sanitary towels or tampons costs roughly £2 to £3, and a woman may need several packs a month, that’s a total monthly cost of around £10. This doesn’t include other related expenses, such as pain relief. While this may not seem like a great deal of money, it is sadly the case that many people are struggling to afford the basics. The rise in the use of food banks, and those who are rough sleeping is linked to low wages and increasing costs. Those disproportionately affected by period poverty are young people, homeless women and those women on low incomes. Altogether, Huffington Post claims that British women will spend as much as £18,450 on periods over their lifetime.

Menstrual products are taxed at 5%, the same rate as solar panels, child car seats and nicotine patches. The Independent offers items exempt from tax, such as edible sugar flowers, alcoholic jellies and exotic meats, as a comparison. The pill and condoms can be obtained for free, so why not menstrual products? Some major supermarkets, like Tesco, are taking action and cutting prices on menstrual products to shoulder the 5% VAT cost. But menstrual products are a right, not a luxury, and the government needs to put an end to the tax on women’s bodies.

The lack of attention on this issue stems from stigma. A society that shows menstrual blood as a blue liquid on TV is sending out the message that periods are to be hidden. Plan International UK found that half of the women they surveyed were embarrassed by their period, more than a quarter did not know what to do when they started their period, and one in seven did not know what was happening when they first started. Clearly, free menstrual products will only go so far. Both boys and girls should receive quality education on the social and emotional aspects of menstruation as well as the biological. This will begin to break down the taboo, the very reason why many women feel they cannot ask for help when it comes to period poverty.

Once I had read about period poverty I thought, what can I do? There are several ways you can tackle the issue as an individual. Sign petitions, get involved with charities and organisations, donate menstrual products to local food banks, shelters or women’s groups. Write to your MP to make sure period poverty is an issue that continues to be discussed in parliament. Talk to your friends, peers, children, about period poverty and spread the word on social media. Although period poverty affects many, there are small actions you can take locally that will make a huge difference.

When I first read about period poverty here in the UK I was shocked. Despite being seen as a first world nation, the UK has a growing number of people that cannot cover the cost of basic living. However, period poverty is a global issue, and part of the wider issue of poverty itself. Scrapping the tax, providing products to those in need, and having open, honest discussions about menstruation are needed for change to happen. Yet, you cannot eradicate period poverty without defeating poverty itself and enabling people to support themselves. Ultimately, no woman or girl should be forced to miss out on their education, risk their health or safety, as they cannot access essential items needed to manage a completely natural process.

Photo credit: Murdo Macleod, The Guardian