“access to sanitary products during menstruation is a basic human right.” 

“Menstrual bleeding isn’t dangerous or shameful. It’s completely normal. What is dangerous and shameful is the failure of governments around the world to challenge this prevailing gendered inequality, especially when it risks lives.” These are the words of Monica Lennon MSP, in her proposal for a bill that ensures that everyone who is in need of free sanitary products has access to said products. A bill that would, hopefully, help to reduce the number of womxn currently suffering through period poverty. 

The Royal College of Nursing defines period poverty as, “the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints.” When I first heard the phrase, I thought of a similar definition. That it only affected womxn and girls who couldn’t afford sanitary products. In fact, a 2016 survey by Action Aid, revealed that more than 3.5 million girls and womxn in the UK had missed school or work because of their period. Not all of them because they couldn’t afford their products. So, what really constitutes as ‘period poverty’?

Period poverty can be felt from the moment you start menstruating as a child/young adult. In the UK, it is estimated that over the course of a year, 137,700 young womxn miss school because of their period. In 2017, Plan International UK surveyed 1,000 young womxn, between the ages of 14 and 21 and found that 1 in 10 couldn’t afford to buy menstrual products, and 1 in 7 have struggled to afford them. 

Photo by Alina Blumberg from Pexels

17-year-old A-level student, Annaleece Longmore, recalls the first time she realised the extent of period poverty amongst young womxn in her school. “There were girls that I knew, that were in my classes, that would skip lessons at high school because they didn’t have any products on them and couldn’t afford them,” she tells me. 

In January 2019, Free Periods teamed up with The Red Box project and successfully lobbied the government to launch a free period products scheme for all state-maintained primary schools, secondary schools, and colleges in England. In October, only 40% of schools had signed up to the scheme. Amika George, founder of Free Periods commented, “We know that this scheme is so needed in schools across England. Teachers and students are telling us that every single day, but we need every school to sign up urgently. Everyone deserves to be in lessons without the choking fear of worrying if they’ve leaked onto their uniform.”

In 2019, Annaleece was campaigning to become student president. “I will admit it,’ she confesses, “[free period products] wasn’t something I had thought of. I was thinking about my manifesto for a few weeks, and I went and spoke to some girls from my year group. I asked them what they wanted me to do for them, and they said that they wanted free [period] products in every bathroom. I thought, wow, I had not thought about that.” Luckily, that night, Annaleece came across The Red Box Project and began campaigning to get her school to sign up.  

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Period poverty isn’t simply not having access or being able to afford sanitary products. It can also be caused by a complete lack of, limited, or misinformation when it comes to periods and the menstrual cycle. Research done by Action Aid, to mark World Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017, revealed that 1 in 4 women between the ages of 16 and 39 don’t understand their menstrual cycle. When I asked Annaleese about her period education, she responded, “I remember having a lesson in primary school, I think in year 6, about periods, but, ironically enough, I don’t think I ever got told [about periods] and it was never really discussed in high school.” And when I asked her how this had impacted the knowledge she had about her own body and menstrual cycle, her answer was saddening, “I remember there was a couple of things to do with periods, where my friends said something about it, and I was like, ‘wait that’s normal? Oh, thank god I thought I was dying.’”

Some girls and young womxn are dependent on their schools to teach them about their menstrual cycle and provide them with the products they need because they don’t have a support network at home to depend on. Amy Williams is a period and fertility coach, physical living coach, and clinical reflexologist. When she was growing up, she suffered with period poverty, but not due to a lack of money. “When I was a young teen I wasn’t in poverty, I lived in quite an affluent family, but my mum had mental health issues and my dad was never there and wasn’t approachable so there was never any way of getting products.” This lack of support is what forced Amy into period poverty. “I either stole stuff from my sister or my mum, or I just used toilet roll.”

Having no support system at home or school, lacking basic menstrual knowledge, and simply being expected to be able to ‘deal with your period’ every month without talking about it, fuels the fire of shame that womxn have to deal with from the moment they begin menstruating. 

Frances Lucraft is the CEO of Grace and Green, a company that sells environmentally and ethically made period care products, and works with charity organisations to fight period poverty. As part of her battle to end period poverty, she works with schools across the country and has seen first-hand how the shame and taboo that comes with menstruation has affected girls and young womxn. “We’re talking to a range of schools around the UK, some of whom are really disadvantaged, as well as some of the top schools in the country,” She explains. “It might be surprising to think, but it also in these top schools that period poverty is being experienced. It’s as though it’s a given that girls can afford, or have access to, them [period products], and there is no system in place to provide them for free in the toilets, and yet the girls are absolutely humiliated by it.” Frances continues, “It depends how you define it, but period poverty is not all about finances, it’s about access, empowerment, and dignity. It’s classless.”

Graphic made by Kayleigh Russell, freelance graphic designer

This humiliation that girls and young womxn feel when talking about their periods is a societal issue that doesn’t get any better as they age. In fact, a third of British women are embarrassed about their period. “There is not enough conversation, open conversation, it is still seen as a taboo, an icky subject, and there is this sense that we have to pretend that it doesn’t happen,” Amy explains. 

Every girl, young womxn, and womxn is different, and some will experience worse period symptoms than others. The brutal reality of being a womxn on your period is that you still have blood leaking from your vagina as you desperately try to get on with your everyday life. Couple this with cramps, period diarrhoea, hot and cold flushes, hormone changes, flooding, and the fact that you may not be able to go into your school or workplace and get an ample supply, if any, of the menstrual products that you need, and it is no wonder that 3.5 million girls and women in the UK have missed school or work because of their period. But they would never admit to any of this. “you would rather say that you have diarrhoea,” Amy deadpans. “The fact that we can talk about diarrhoea more than we can talk about periods is a big issue.

The miseducation of girls and young womxn is not the only contributing factor to period shame, and therefore period poverty. The lack of education that boys and men get about periods plays a monumental role. “We’re still fundamentally dictated by a world in which the majority of men still hold the decision making power in the workplace,” Frances explains, “many businesses that we talk to need to get budgets signed off, in the majority of cases, this would be a man, and in some cases, that person has rejected it as not important [having free period products available] or unfair that women would get ‘something’ in the workplace and not men. Whereas if they were educated about it, then it would be like loo paper, it would be around everywhere.”

Photo by C Technical from Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the pressure that charities and organisations who support those in period poverty feel. “I think we have a large generation of people in employment but still on the bread line, and still really, really struggling. That is a massive social issue,” comments Justine, Company Director for Eco Dreams. With 9.9 million people on furlough as of the 13th of December 2020, and 1.69 million unemployed as of the 15th December 2020, it’s no wonder that women are giving up their menstrual products to be able to afford other essentials. “We’ve [Grace and Green] easily seen a 200% increase for our products [since the COVID-19 pandemic hit]. If people are unable to feed their families, you know that mothers are sacrificing their period products, and I think that has a massive knock-on effect to children,” Frances comments.   

This knock-on effect is what makes projects, such as The Red Box Project, essential. Gemma Abbott, director of Free Periods and coordinator for The Red Box Project comments, “We’re already in the deepest recession since records began, and life is going to become even more precarious for many households in the months ahead, which will result in increasing numbers of young people being unable to access the period supplies they need. Young people have already had so many hours away from the classroom, so no student should have to miss out on more education, simply because they can’t access period products each month. The Government has given us the opportunity to make sure young people stay in lessons whilst on their period; all it takes is a short phone call from a teacher to PHS!”

Luckily, there has been positive changes happening as of recent in the period poverty movement. On the 24thof November 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free to those who need them. The bill was first proposed by Monica Lennon MSP in August 2017. In the proposal of her bill she wrote, “Access to sanitary products to absorb the flow of menstrual blood is essential for health, hygiene and full participation in daily life…The aim of this proposed Bill is to ensure that all those who menstruate, including women, girls and trans people who have periods, are able to access sanitary products during menstruation, at no cost, as and when they are required. This will help to prevent people experiencing period poverty.”

Graphic made by Kayleigh Russell, freelance graphic designer

In addition to this monumental move from Scotland, the tampon tax was abolished in the UK on the 1st of January 2021. This means that the 5% VAT that was added on to all menstrual products for being a ‘luxury item’ has been removed. “Personally speaking, I’m very pleased to hear about the tampon tax being abolished. It’s been a long time coming,” Chloe Quinn, a mental health and wellness worker from Northern Ireland comments. “It’s simply not enough to abolish tampon tax. We need to start supplying free sanitary products for young people, the homeless etc. If you can go to a family planning clinic or a fresher’s fair and get free condoms, why can’t you do the same with tampons and pads?”

Undoubtedly, the abolishment of tampon tax and the free period products scheme in Scotland is a positive move towards closing the period poverty gap, however it is still not enough. “My concern is that they aren’t going to roll out the programme effectively so people who really do need the products are going to find it hard to access them,” Justine worries. Frances shares a similar concern, “It can’t be just about providing the product alone, there is a reason people need them, and we need a wider understanding of why poverty exists so acutely in our society and why it’s on the increase. The UK currently ranks as the fifth most unequal country in Europe, and the poverty gap is only widening. What is alarming is many of these people who are living on the breadline have jobs, but are simply unable to make ends meet. People with jobs are having to rely on food banks. That pledge of money is fantastic, but supplying free products is not the answer, it does not address the core roots of poverty within the UK”

It’s up to the government to stop period poverty from happening, but there are things that we can all do to help the movement. “It’s about supporting those campaigns, helping to move things forwards, even on the smallest level. In terms of signing some sort of petition, choosing a politician in elections that support these things, putting things in the food bank for people. It’s just doing those little bits here and there that will really add up,” Amy advises. 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

“I think we all have an onus in general right now to, if we can afford to, support charities or organisations who are, across the board, supporting people who are in need right now. So, if you are donating to a food bank, donate to period poverty boxes,” urges Frances. 

“The biggest way to help [the period poverty movement] is to shop brands that support period poverty initiatives. Stay away from the mainstream companies, they say that they have period poverty initiatives, but it is completely out of touch. Put your money where your values are, buy from companies who are actually helping the cause,” says Justine. 

And finally, Annaleece comments, “if you know someone can’t afford it and you have access to them, support your fellow women and anyone that needs them, because supporting each other is the first step. Be loud about the issue, and hopefully there will be a day where, as a developed country we can say period poverty is at the lowest that it has been in years.”