Period poverty in the UK is starting to garner public attention. The term is used to describe the situation where women and girls cannot afford menstruation products (e.g. tampons and sanitary pads). Labour’s Angela Rayner recently announced a plan to use £10 million to tackle period poverty in schools. Furthermore, features in The Guardian, Woman’s Hour and The Huffington Post demonstrate increased interest in the issue. We now need to build on this momentum and find out more about period poverty, stigma around menstruation and how both these things can impact educational engagement in the UK.
Period poverty and education
Some international studies, typically in the developing world, suggest that there is a link between period poverty and educational engagement:
- In 2012, research from Kenya found that girls in school who experienced period poverty suffered from anxiety, embarrassment, fear of stigma and low mood.
- In 2014, a study in Kenya suggested that menstruation and poor access to menstruation products negatively impact girls’ school attendance.
- However, an evaluation in Uganda in 2016 suggested that providing free menstruation products did not improve girls’ school attendance or self-reported shame and insecurity during menstruation. (Note: the findings of this study should be taken with caution due to poor participant retention).
Perhaps, then, there are two issues we should be thinking about: 1. inability to pay for menstruation products and 2. attitudes towards menstruation.
But, can we apply these findings to the UK? Cultural differences would seem to suggest that we can’t. However, stories from the UK indicate that period poverty is a real problem that needs to be addressed.
A secondary school in Leeds found that young girls were not attending school because they were unable to afford menstruation products. They made contact with the charity Freedom4Girls, who usually provide products to girls in Kenya. Whilst the charity has been able to support local schools, they have said that this is not a sustainable solution. This is not an isolated case. Flow Aid’s CEO, Hayley Smith has had contact from a primary school teacher asking the charity to support young girls who do not have access to menstruation products.
The experience of UK period poverty
There is a huge range of menstruation products available and, guess what, they are expensive. They are also subject to a 5% VAT. A quick browse of the internet shows that prices can range anywhere from £1 (for a pack of 12 pads on special offer) to £5.69 (for a pack of 40 tampons). I’ve picked out a few:
How many pads/tampons needed in a month will vary from person to person. This is because the flow of bleeding, and the time it lasts, is variable. Added to this is the unpredictability of when bleeding will come about. This is especially true for girls during, and shortly after, puberty whose hormone changes can result in irregularity.
Let’s imagine a scenario in school. You’re in a lesson, you’re not expecting your period, but it arrives. You think about going to a shop after school. You know you can’t afford to pay for the branded tampons in the local Co-op, nor can you afford to travel into town where cheaper options are sold. You don’t even know how long this period is going to last! What if it’s 8 days like the previous one? What if it’s really heavy? Maybe you can mention it to one of your friends. You think about it for a while, but you don’t want them laugh at you. You’re feeling more stressed. Perhaps you can speak to a teacher? You want to, but you feel like it would be embarrassing. Talking about periods is not something people do.
The stigma around menstruation is likely to exacerbate the experience of period poverty. As Rosa explain, “the stigmas of menstruation and poverty are so shameful individually that when they are combined, the humiliation undoubtedly prevents people from coming forward.”
What’s the extent of period poverty in the UK?
Put simply, we don’t know. The stigma around menstruation makes data collections difficult. Girls experiencing period poverty may feel that they cannot talk about it.
However, we do know that a large number of people in the UK are in poverty. In 2015/16 , 10.4 million people were in relative low income before housing costs. That was 300,000 more than the year before. Logic would suggest that poverty figures and the cost of menstruation products mean that period poverty is experienced widely. However, there is currently no data to support this assumption or to guide policy-makers in how best to address the problem.
- Freedom4Girls are crowdfunding to raise awareness about the issue. They are also drawing attention to the need for research to expose the extent of period poverty in the UK.
- In Aberdeen, the Scottish government are running a pilot scheme to make menstruation products free for women and girls. This will help us to understand more about the barriers girls experience as well as what an effective solution might look like.
- Tesco became the first supermarket to drop the price of menstruation products by 5% and cover VAT. Others have followed suit.
These are steps in the right direction. However, we need to keep challenging the stigma around menstruation. If we want to stop girls experiencing period poverty, talking about it is a good place to start.