Thousands of children across the UK miss school, avoid social situations, or are unable to leave the house at all when they can’t afford period products. Meanwhile, with homelessness on the rise, those below the poverty line are being denied the dignity of proper sanitary products.
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As anyone who has had a period will know, period products are not a luxury but a necessity. It should be a fundamental right to have the appropriate sanitary products; they can make the difference between being housebound and being able to go to school.
Research on 500 girls aged 10-18 found 26% were avoiding social situations because of period poverty- they did not want to see their friends or go to friends’ houses when on their period. Furthermore, the importance of having access to free period products can make a huge difference on children’s experience of school. The same study found that 48% of girls who were able to get free period products while at school said they were able to do activities such as sports, which otherwise would not have been possible for them.
In the words of the three women who started the movement ‘On the Ball’, a campaign to get football clubs to provide free period products in their bathrooms, you would not be expected to bring your own soap or toilet paper around with you; why should women have to carry their own period products, which are equally as important?
Another issue around periods is stigma. As Councillor Helen Goodwin, Bristol’s cabinet member for women, children, and families, states ‘it is important to educate young people too to help end the stigma around periods and menstrual health.’ Children are embarrassed to ask for help, and often resort to using toilet paper or even newspaper when they cannot afford period products. It is not enough just to make products available, people need to feel comfortable enough to ask for the help they need without feeling like periods are something to be ashamed of. This embarrassment surrounding women’s and transgender/non-binary bodies is a product of the sexist society we live in; work needs to be done to overcome this idea that periods are unclean, a sentiment that can be found across many different cultures.
Period poverty and homelessness
For homeless people in the UK and around the world, periods can be a time of great distress. Many people on the streets have to decide whether to eat or whether to buy sanitary products, and food banks are always calling for donations of tampons and pads. Not having access to these products can not only be very uncomfortable and unhygienic, but can take away people’s dignity and make them feel unable to face society. They may also be embarrassed to seek medical help due to the stigma surrounding periods.
The problem is summed up well in a Guardian article about homeless people attending A&E. A nurse writes about ‘a young woman who shows up to A&E with a plastic bag half-full of stolen menstrual hygiene products, asking me to admit her for a few days because the prospect of another period on the streets is too abysmal.’ In a BBC documentary, a woman explains how she spent an entire period using only tissues and socks because she could not afford period products. She said she often resorts to just wearing old clothes and not leaving the house when menstruating.
Period poverty also disproportionately affects asylum seekers due to the small amount of money they live on. Asylum seekers get £37.75 per week to survive and the average price of a box of tampons in the UK is £2.30. The average lifetime cost of periods is £4800. This price is for something that happens naturally without choice to half the population at some point in their lives.
What’s being done?
In March, Philip Hammond announced that there would be free period products in all secondary schools. This is a fantastic step and will make a big difference to lots of young people, but frustratingly this will not be implemented until spring 2020. Charities such as the Red Box Project have been working with schools for a few years to ask them to provide a well-stocked supply of products for students to take.
Meanwhile, the UK government has started a period poverty taskforce which met for the first time in July 2019. In their words, ‘sanitary products are not a luxury and our research has proven that being unable to afford these items can have a detrimental effect. We’ll be looking to provide practical solutions to ensure no girls or women in the UK miss work or school because of lack of access to period products.’
The taskforce also wants to improve education. Most people educated in the UK will agree that their education on the menstrual cycle and women’s bodies in general was fleeting and un-detailed, meaning many British people often don’t actually know what causes their periods, and more importantly which symptoms may require medical attention. Maisie Hill’s book Period Power is full of information about the menstrual cycle, hormones, and women’s health. She notes how there is a lack of information available and that some GPs still aren’t able to recognise and diagnose common problems. Many people who have severe period pains do not go to a doctor for help, and sometimes even those who do are not taken seriously. Endometriosis for example, a condition that affects 1 in 10 women and can cause crippling pain, is severely under diagnosed meaning many people miss school or work due to illness around the time of their period and do not have an explanation for their pain. Period Power exemplifies the issue of period poverty. Not only is there a financial obstacle, but there are systematic obstacles preventing people from managing their menstrual health being able to recognise when something is not right.
Overall, it is clear there is much to be done. Steps are being made it the right direction, especially in recent years, but the gender inequality is clear. Women’s health research and awareness is miles behind that of men, and until every person in the world who experiences periods can have access to period products and education, it is crucial to keep campaigning.
At JAN Trust we work with marginalised women who are affected by these problems. We recognise the power of education to improve women’s lives. To find out more about our work, visit jantrust.org.