Period poverty is a public health crisis across the United Kingdom according to official data. In November, Scotland became the first country in the world to make menstrual products free for those in need. What would it take for England to do the same? Westminster World talked to campaigners and experts about the inability to afford menstrual products and period stigma.
According to Plan International UK (P.I. UK), a survey conducted in 2019 showed that one in five girls reported being bullied or teased, and nearly 50 percent reported missing a day of school because of their periods.
The same research revealed that women in the UK spend more than £16,500 on period products or aids in their lifetime and ten per cent of girls cannot afford the sanitary products they need.
Wen (Women’s Environmental Network) is an environmental justice charity aiming to achieve equality and justice with gender and environmental issues. Natasha Piette-Basheer, Environmenstrual Campaign Manager for Wen (a campaign to raise awareness about the environmentally friendly alternatives for period products) said: “…access to period products is a matter of human rights, and addressing period poverty would help alleviate many of the issues the country faces in terms of barriers to education, mental wellbeing, and reproductive health that hundreds of thousands go through as a result of the impact of period poverty.”
“The pandemic has exacerbated the period poverty figures exponentially,” Piette-Basheer explained, “University students who’ve been hit with hospitality job losses and the effects of self-isolation are struggling to afford products. According to Plan UK, almost a third of girls have struggled to afford period products in lockdown.”
Wen’s aim is to educate people in England about period poverty as well as to inform the public on what measures are in place. They attribute stigma, access, and representation as well as others as contributing factors to period poverty: “Period stigma also has a massive impact on the products we use. In order to achieve period parity, all people who menstruate need to have safe and equal access to, and education about, all menstrual products.”
Environmentally friendly products, if made available, are much less costly for the user. Most reusable cups cost from around £15-40 and last up to ten years if handled correctly, and reusable pads which can be around £5-10 each and last for about four years.
“Wen continues to run education programmes that include information about all the different menstrual products out there and pushes leading producers to remove the harmful chemicals and plastic in conventional products, and raise awareness about some of the alternative reusable period care options that can be better on people’s pockets, health and the environment.”
Ethnic minorities: Target of period poverty?
As the pandemic exacerbates the economic crisis and unemployment figures increase, financially disadvantaged groups are less able to access sanitary products.
Adriana Borja, Gender, Sex and Culture (M.A) from Birkbeck University, said to Westminster World: “Period poverty usually impacts the most underserved communities, people living in poverty, refugees and asylum seekers, homeless and gender non-conforming individuals who menstruate.”
According to the Government Equalities Office, ethnic minority women are more likely to experience excess poverty. The study showed that rates are high for Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Black African women and climbing for Caribbean and Indian women.
The free access to menstrual products could ease the monthly financial burden faced by these women. For Rita Mota, a University of Glasgow Alumna and feminist activist, period poverty implies a decision between buying sanitary products or spending on other essential aspects as food and transportation.
“If you don’t have period products, it is very likely that you will not be able to leave home to study and /or work. This is detrimental to the development of girls, adolescents and women. Also, the fact that the consumer must pay taxes for essential menstrual health products is just baffling,” she told us.
Research conducted by Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health and the Education and Life Sciences Ethics Committee stated that BAME communities (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) face additional forms of stigma that contribute to period poverty and stop menstruation education initiatives.
However, the same study acknowledged that it is not a problem exclusively affecting these ethnic groups, since there is a significant diversity within marginalized communities and their relation to period poverty.
“Period poverty is affecting thousands of young women and girls in London. The shame and stigma that continue to surround periods compounds this issue. With girls admitting to not being able to afford the appropriate products they need, many are resorting to using inadequate protection, or reluctantly asking for support from their school teachers and friends,” commented Borja.
Break the silence
Borja believed the stigma surrounding periods began with the name. She added: “There are plenty of myths associated with periods, as well as euphemisms to refer to menstruation as if it is something shameful to even speak about it with the proper words.”
With the taboo, comes silence. Based on a P.I. UK survey, about three-quarters of girls felt uncomfortable discussing their period with their teacher and male friends in the UK.
Adriana Ryder, 13, a student from an Academy in London told Westminster World: “I can talk about periods with my friends, but not comfortable with others, like male teachers.”
Borja said: “Part of the menstrual education is speaking openly about the body, menstrual cycle and its relationship to the reproduction and sexuality, recognizing symptoms of PMS, and even endometriosis.”
The Government announced that Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education would become compulsory in England from September 2020. The education guide suggested that pupils should be given menstruation education since primary school. Till 1st October 2020, there have been more than 1,500 early adopter schools who registered to introduce the new subjects during the 2019-20 academic year.
Breaking the silence around periods is not only about girls. The P.I. UK proposed that boys and girls should both be taught and involved in menstrual education. With the knowledge to better discuss this topic, empathy can be established between genders for an open dialogue.
“I wouldn’t say that the boys get enough education about periods,” Katrina Lennon, 16, a secondary student in London explained. “They usually think we are in a bad mood because we are always on it, but it’s not that.” Statistically, more than half of the girls reported that they had received negative remarks about their perceived behaviour and mood whilst on their period.
When feelings of shame and unfairness appear in a group, the key to solving them is not just focusing on individual problems, but also a structural problem in society.
“We should also raise awareness on the fact that not only cisgender women menstruate; some non-binary, trans men and other gender non-conforming individuals also have periods and many also face period poverty,” Borja added.
Scotland’s decision to make period products free, has built a certain pressure on governments across the world, especially those in the United Kingdom, to implement similar laws.
In January, a government scheme was launched to end period poverty in schools, allowing these institutions to order free period products for their students (with a spending cap) , but only 41 percent of schools have taken up the Government on this offer to date.
As Natasha Piette- Basheer said: “It will take wider legislation action to ensure period products are available for everyone who needs them. Let’s take Scotland’s lead – we need to galvanise across sectors to call on government leaders to prioritise free products for all.”