Let's Talk Period Poverty

A recent survey by the charity Plan International UK shockingly found that 1 in 10 women aged 14-21 in Britain had been unable to afford sanitary wear. Additionally, 15% struggle to afford sanitary wear, and 19% had changed to a less suitable sanitary product due to cost issues.

For many, the prospect of being unable to afford a £2 pack of tampons may seem far-fetched, or at least a relatively minor financial issue, but in reality this is an element of poverty affecting a large proportion of the population of the UK. Trussel Trust reported giving nearly 1.2 million emergency food supplies in the period between April 2016 and April 2017. This huge rise in the number of people using food banks raises the question as to how those within this group who experience menstruation are getting the sanitary products that they need.

If you fully consider the country’s increase in poverty, it follows that families who can’t afford to attend to basic needs such as food and shelter would also be unable to afford sanitary towels or tampons, which surely should be treated within the same category of necessity. £2 may not seem like a lot, but if you consider a home with a mother and multiple daughters who need a couple of packs each a month, this cost adds up and can become unaffordable for many households. This is the issue of period poverty. The fact that something so undeniably necessary is also something that has to be carefully budgeted for creates an element of shame, discomfort and inequality for women who lack access to products required for basic hygiene.

Numerous accounts online reveal common experiences of those who menstruate being forced to use toilet paper, socks and newspaper instead of sanitary products. This highlights the problematic attitude within society that periods are a taboo subject, something to be ashamed of and experience secretly. I’m sure most girls have hidden their tampon or sanitary towel on the way to the bathroom in public, which leads me to question how this concealment of a normal bodily function has become the norm? [Editor’s note: even finding an appropriate stock photo for this article was very difficult]

This situation seems to reaffirm gender inequality in how it imposes a limitation and sense of shame on a significant proportion of young women in the UK. Adolescents may find themselves unable to attend school when on their period, having no access to sanitary wear or insufficient supplies to last the whole duration of their period. This leaves young people having to sacrifice their education due to a lack of systemic support, and the unwillingness of society to discuss these issues.

Despite the existence of period poverty within Britain, a 5% period tax still remains on all sanitary products. Last year, David Cameron announced that the period tax would be scrapped but that this had to be done through the EU. However, with current Brexit negotiations taking place, it remains unclear as to how long this will take. We may still have a long way to go before the government can offer a solution to period poverty, as even reducing the cost by a small amount is proving to be a long-winded task.

Hopefully in the future a proper system can be put in place to help those experiencing period poverty. Without current government backing, progress can be made by supporting charities in making donations, and spreading awareness of the urgency of this issue within the UK. Charities include Bloody Good Period, who supply donations to foodbanks and asylum seeker drop-in centres, and The Homeless Period, who take donations but are also campaigning for shelters to have an allowance for sanitary products.

Currently, it is hugely important to start a more open discussion of  period poverty and to combat the discomfort involved in talking about menstruation, as though it isn’t something half of the population have or will experience. This would make it easier for people to seek support from charities, and make others aware that there are people who need their donations to fulfil their basic needs in life. Some people who donate to foodbanks are probably unaware that they can or should also donate sanitary products. The more people voice these issues, the more likely it is for the government to put a system in place to deal with them.

I am aware that this is a global issue and that I have only discussed the UK, but I also think that it’s important to remind people that this is also a national issue and even a highly economically developed country such as the UK has no system in place to tackle period poverty. On every scale, whether it be locally, nationally or globally, period poverty is still something that desperately needs to be discussed, even within Durham University. FreeDAM is a new society at Durham, as of this term, that is campaigning for free sanitary products for Durham students and seeks to educate and raise awareness about menstruation. It campaigns for gender-neutral toilet facilities, raising awareness of the fact that not all students who menstruate self-define as women. This seems an important step towards periods becoming a more normal and open topic of discussion within university, and will hopefully lead to a system of providing free sanitary products at Durham that will support members of our community but also act as an example of a solution that works and can be used elsewhere.

Image Credits: 1, 2