Wednesday, July 17News For London

Period poverty: what is it and what’s being done about it?

Founder of FreePeriods, Amika George giving a talk in Covent Garden about the effects of period poverty

On the most basic level, period poverty is something experienced by women or girls who, due to financial limitations, cannot access sanitary products for their periods. While many take for granted the ability to purchase these products, many around the world put their lives on hold during menstruation or are forced to use other, sometimes unhygienic methods.

Many see this as an issue affecting impoverished nations, however, this affects women across the UK as well. According to Plan International UK, 1 in 10 girls in the UK can’t afford to buy sanitary products, and over 137,700 children have missed school in the UK because of this issue.

Graphic: Sarah Dixon, data from Plan International UK

Women at risk

The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) most recent report on Persistent Poverty in the UK and EU, stated that 7.3 per cent of the UK population, or 4.6 million people, are classed as experiencing persistent poverty. This means that they are “experiencing relative low income in the current year, as well as at least 2 out of the 3 preceding years.”

Women make up a disproportionate number of people living in poverty, not only in the UK but around the world. With women, 8.2 per cent were persistently poor, whereas men were at 6.3 per cent. This trend has grown since 2008 when data first became available, and it is now the largest measured gap in percentage points. What does this mean? The feminization of persistent poverty is not on the decline.

Graph: Sarah Dixon, data from ONS Persistent poverty in the UK and EU

The feminization of poverty

Despite some progress to achieve economic equality, women are much more likely to live in poverty than men. This is due to a number of causes; however, it is primarily to do with work and care responsibilities, according to data from Oxfam.

Globally, women have the lowest wages, earning 24 per cent less than men, and that’s if women are able to work at all. According to Oxfam, there are 700 million fewer women working paying jobs than men worldwide. Many women are less likely to have a role in a formal job, meaning contracts from employers, rights, benefits, protections, etc. In developing countries, a staggering 75 per cent of women are in this position, working precarious jobs with no security whatsoever.

Graph: Sarah Dixon, data from ONS Persistent poverty in the UK and EU: 2015

Women also have the bulk of care opportunities, according to the report, meaning much of their work is unpaid. Because of things like childcare and household work, women do a disproportionate amount of unpaid care, sometime even 10 times as much as men. This work is valued at an estimated $10 trillion, equal to an eight of the world’s GDP. In UK, the likelihood of women being single parents is much higher than that of men. Nine out of ten lone parents are women. According to Fawcett Society’s report “Gender and Poverty”, male single parents have a median gross weekly pay of £346, while the median for female single parents is £194.40. Single parents, according to ONS data are far more likely to live in persistent poverty. Women in the UK are also four times as likely to be in part-time jobs, which have shorter hours for less pay. When their paid and unpaid work is combined, women work much longer days on average than men for much less.

Graph: Sarah Dixon, data from ONS Persistent Poverty in the UK and EU

Because of the extra employment limitations and care responsibilities placed on women, they have historically and still continue to have higher rates of poverty than men.

Consider the cost

When we think about poverty, we typically consider lack of adequate food or shelter, however menstruation is almost inevitable for women, and sanitary products can be expensive. According to the London Assembly Environment Committee, a report from August 2018 found that the average woman will spend £128 per year on her period, over £2,280 in her lifetime.

There are many girls who know buying food is already a struggle for their family, let alone tampons. There are mothers who cannot afford to spend money on items for themselves. This combined with taboo and stigma still surrounding talking about menstruation makes women less likely to ask for help when needed, having serious effects on health, wellbeing, education, work and overall quality of life.

What is being done about it?

This issue affecting thousands of women in the UK has been brought to the public’s attention in recent years thanks to activists and campaigns. Activist Amika George calls period poverty “a hidden problem, an unknown crisis”. George first heard about the issue years ago, learning that girls were routinely missing school because they could not afford sanitary products. Since then she has started a campaign and petition called #freeperiods to call on the government to give free sanitary products to all girls who receive free school meals. According to FreePeriods, 800 million girls around the world miss a week of school every month because of their period.

George said in a talk in Covent Garden: “Girls in the UK have to choose between an education they need and deserve or going to school using horrific and almost primitive alternatives, like toilet paper, old socks or newspaper.”

These unconventional methods can sometimes be ineffective or even dangerous, which is why some girls choose to stay at home rather than risk bleeding through their clothes at school. FreePeriods reported that 68 per cent of female students said they felt less able to pay attention in class at school or college while menstruating. The stress, shame and missing school due to period poverty can put female students behind their male peers when it comes to academics.

Illustration: FreePeriods

In June of last year, Labour MP Danielle Rowley made history in the House of Commons by announcing that she was on her period during a debate surround sanitary protection costs. Rowley also stated that in that week, she had spent £25 on these products.

Also in 2018, several schools across Scotland began offering free sanitary products to their students. The North Ayrshire Council in Scotland also stated that it would be offering free sanitary protection in public toilets in up to 100 buildings, such as libraries and community centres.

Sanitary protection brands have also jumped on the bandwagon, launching campaigns to combat period poverty. Last year, Always donated over 12 million pads to girls who might miss school because of their period in their #EndPeriodPoverty campaign. Independent brand Hey Girls also placed newspaper ads featuring a cut-out ‘make your own’ pad, stressing how many girls and women have to improvise when it comes to sanitary protection. Hey Girls also donates a package of pads to a girl in need for every one sold.

Image: Hey Girls

Recently, in March 2019, the UK government pledged £2 million to help organisations end period poverty by 2030. While these brands and activists have made huge strides in public awareness of the issue, period poverty still reaches women across the UK. These discussions must continue to ensure all women have access to hygienic and reliable sanitary protection.

By: Sarah Dixon