Disclaimer: In this article, I have used gender-neutral terms to be inclusive of ALL people who menstruate. However, I have included a few statistics. Since most statistics are based on surveys taken by cis-gendered women, a gender-neutral term hasn’t always been appropriate. I recognize that cis-gendered women are not the only people who suffer from period poverty. I have therefore used the term ‘people who menstruate’ where possible.
COVID-19 has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, impacts which we will be dealing with for many years to come. In the past few months, we have seen the global pandemic amplify the pre-existing social issues in the UK. Many of the problems primarily affecting women have been intensified; domestic abuse has risen, there has been limited access to reproductive health services and we have seen an increase in period poverty.
The charities fighting against period poverty have claimed that Covid-19 has exacerbated the issue. Plan International UK has reported that since the start of lockdown, 30% of girls have not been able to access period products, with over half of these girls using toilet paper as an alternative option. Period poverty is a global issue impacting those who menstruate all over the world. We don’t always expect it to be something happening on our doorstep here in the UK, but it is.
In the UK, period poverty was just starting to get more recognition. With the government pledging to supply free period products in all schools across England and Wales, we were beginning to see progress. However, Covid-19 has led to this progress taking several steps backward.
What is period poverty?
In its simplest form, period poverty is when someone is unable to access period products due to financial constraints. However, the term also refers to a lack of menstrual hygiene education, limited access to toilets and handwashing facilities and waste management.
There are three main factors which contribute to period poverty:
- A lack of education surrounding menstruation
- Not being able to afford period products and not having a safe and hygienic environment to use them
- The taboo and stigma associated with menstruation
It’s important to mention here that period poverty doesn’t have to mean no access to period products. It also refers to limited access, where individuals are forced to use the same product for a prolonged period of time, often causing infections.
When we think of poverty, we immediately think about a shortage of food or shelter. We don’t necessarily consider how poverty impacts those who menstruate. In the UK, 1 in 10 girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products and 1 in 7 have struggled to afford them.
(According to a representative survey of 1,000 girls and young women aged 14-21 by Plan International UK)
The impact of period poverty
Not being able to manage your periods not only impacts you physically but emotionally too. Struggling to access period products can cause stress and anxiety, possibly leading to mental health issues. It also leads to physical health problems, particularly when people are forced to use the same product for a large amount of time.
Period poverty has serious consequences, including immense social and economic impacts. Plan International UK found that 49 per cent of girls have missed an entire day of school because of their period. Moreover, over a one year time frame, 137,700 children in the UK will miss school because of period poverty. This highlights how period poverty has knock on effects, impacting people’s education, health and possibly even job opportunities.
How has the pandemic exacerbated the issue?
Covid-19 has meant that many factors contributing to period poverty have been emphasised, these include:
- School and community center closures
- Newfound finical pressures
- An increase in poverty as the result of losses of income
- Stock piling and disruption in production lines
- People not being able to get to the shops to buy their products
This year, the English and welsh government pledged to supply free period products to all schools across England and Wales. This is an amazing step in the right direction and one which begins to tackle the issue. However, lots of students, therefore, rely upon this service to get them through their periods. With the pandemic leading to school closures across the UK, many young people were stripped of this essential resource.
Although this service was still in operation throughout lockdown, many families were not aware or simply were not able to go into school to collect free products. Moreover, the scheme is operating on an opt-in basis, which unfortunately means that not all school have embraced it. The charity Free Periods reported that less than 40% of schools have signed up to the Department of Educations free period product scheme, despite it being in operation since January. As schools return to normal, we need to see this scheme promoted more, ensuring that no child’s education is effected by their period.
On top of this, many young people may have missed out on vital sex education at a crucial age. This education helps to break the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. It is also essential in allowing young people to feel confident and comfortable with their periods. Additionally, a limited understanding of menstrual hygiene is a key element of period poverty. This essential aspect of sex education may have slipped under the radar as lessons moved online.
Covid-19 has also lead to job losses and financial strains for many families. As the country enters into a recession and the threat of poverty looms, the future for period poverty doesn’t look promising. It’s clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated an already pressing issue.
Some charities to support who are working hard to end period poverty in the UK:
Bloody Good Period
“A sustainable flow of menstrual protection for those who can’t afford it”
Bloody Good Period is focused on providing period products to asylum seekers and refugees. They partner with 40 asylum seekers drop-in centers across the UK. Through their website, you can purchase period products which will then be distributed to those in need. They also have an online shop with t-shirts, tote bags, and pins. All profits are used to buy more period supplies.
Freedom 4 Girls
“We work to support those who menstruate by challenging the stigmas, taboos, and gender inequalities associated with menstruation. We do this by providing education, providing period products, promoting product choice, and supporting environmentally and financially sustainable options.”
Freedom 4 Girls take donations of period products and distribute them and make reusable, washable pads. They also deliver an important education program which aims to empower, while challenging the stigma that is associated with menstruation.
“Free Periods is a not for profit organization fighting to ensure that NO YOUNG PERSON has to miss out on their education because they have their period.”
Free Periods are one of the organizations that played a role in the government’s policy change. They campaigned to get free period products in schools and their hard work paid off. They work to raise awareness of the scheme and ensure it is being properly funded and implemented properly.