Last March, Always launched a campaign promising to donate one menstruation pad for every pack of Always Ultra purchased in an attempt to end ‘period poverty’ – when menstruators cannot afford pads or tampons. They have since donated nearly 13 million pads, showing that campaign has certainly achieved practical results. However, it misses an important point: period poverty is not just about a lack of funds. As a study by Plan International UK, a girls’ rights charity, found, both poor education and taboos surrounding menstruation combine with a lack of money to form the ‘toxic trio’ of period poverty.
According to one study, menstruators in the UK may spend over £18,000 on their period throughout their lifetime. Sanitary products are not provided by the government and, as they are subject to VAT, are classed as a ‘luxury product’. Shouldering this cost has resulted in 40% of girls being forced to use unsuitable replacements like toilet paper or clothing. While this tax is to end later this year, the issue is still prevalent and most significantly felt by the poorest, with a clear link established between general poverty and period poverty. As such, government policy – in particular austerity – has increased poverty rates in the UK and so facilitated a rise in period poverty.
So how can this be addressed? The Scottish government have recently announced plans to provide free menstruation products to low-income menstruators and to all students from school through university. Campaigns such as #freeperiod are putting pressure on the UK government to introduce similar schemes throughout the rest of the UK. However, societal change takes time, and there are those in need right now. Organisations like The Red Box Project and Bloody Good Period are helping to fill this gap by providing free menstruation products to low-income menstruators and refugees respectively, while homeless charities such as Catching Lives in Canterbury provide donated sanitary products. Red Box also has a branch in Canterbury, co-run by volunteer-coordinator Tizzie Kite who says students can help by donating products, underwear or wipes, helping to raise money or by hosting one the boxes. More details can be obtained through their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/redboxcbury/) which she invited students to like.
The second part of period poverty is a menstruation education deficit. The government have recently announced plans to make PSHE (personal, social, health and education) and RSE (relationships and sex education) compulsory in all secondary schools. Prior to this, only certain types of schools – like independents – were bound by law to provide this education. While positive, this announcement illustrates the varying levels of education students have received on menstruation. This has produced shocking results: one in seven girls admitted to not knowing what was happening when they started their period, and over a quarter had no idea what to do. Simultaneously, one in five girls report not being comfortable discussing periods with their teacher. This demonstrates that menstruators have neither been taught about their periods sufficiently, nor given the tools or confidence to seek the information out themselves.
There are many ways to go about fixing this situation. In terms of education, expanding the focus from biology alone to discuss the lived experience and practicalities of periods is a priority. Furthermore, menstruation should also be regularly taught rather than relegated to one lesson. Finally, it is vital to include those traditionally excluded from these lessons such as disabled students, 44.5% of whom had received no sexual education at all, as well as transgender and non-binary students. The inclusion of boys is particularly important to ensure that they, rather than joking about periods or bullying their fellow students, understand what menstruators go through and are able to offer support.
As the state of PSHE indicates, many of us didn’t receive the education we needed to about menstruation. Acknowledging and addressing these knowledge gaps will enable the subject to be spoken about more openly. It is particularly important in an environment like Kent where many students will go on to have important roles and so have the potential to be drivers of social change.
The final contributor to period poverty is the shame surrounding menstruation – a ‘menstrual stigma’. This issue is strikingly common. 48% of girls embarrassed by their period as do 56% of 14-year-olds. This demonstrates a harmful belief among menstruators that there is something wrong with their normal bodily functions. That belief has been shown to directly affect things like school attendance and, therefore, menstruators’ education and future opportunities. How then can this stigma be addressed?
Talking about periods is an important first step because shame cannot survive being spoken. However, the emotional strain that some may feel in having these conversations is not to be underestimated. Negatives associations with menstruation have been in place for society for years, and consistently reinforced, for instance, through advertising which relies on euphemistically using blue liquid and emphasising ‘cleanliness’ – shamelessly suggesting that menstruation is unhygienic. As such, an effort to ‘reclaim’ menstruation is necessary to replace negative connotations with positive ones and there are numerous examples of how to do so. Plan UK suggested, for instance, associating menstruation with maturity. Slam-poet Dominique Christina, in ‘The Period Poem’, associates menstruation with strength, nature and feminist politics. It is this reclamation of menstruation which is so important in ending the shame and taboo that is so prevalent in our society.
Ending menstrual stigma, ensuring all menstruators can access necessary products and expanding and improving education are all vital steps necessary to ending the ‘toxic trio’ of period poverty. It should be borne in mind that the period poverty around the globe robs the world of girls’ potential, and steals their happiness. It is, therefore, vital that period poverty is viewed as a global problem of great urgency, which we are all capable of helping to end.