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How can we fight period poverty?

On the 25th of February 2020, Scotland officially took its steps to become the first country in the world to provide free accessible sanitary products. The Period Products Bill passed the first out of three stages in the Scottish Parliament, of which the annual £24 million programme would create a legal obligation to ensure all higher institutions provide period products to those in need. As explained by the champion for the Act, Scottish MP Monica Lennon notes the first passing presents a vital move towards ‘‘improving access … and tackling stigma’’ to eventually ‘’achieve period dignity’’. 

According to a representative survey of 1,000 girls and young women aged 14-21 by Plan International UK, one in 10 girls cannot afford to buy menstrual products, while one in seven has struggled to provide them. This is particularly troubling as almost a third of the UK population experienced poverty in at least one year between 2010 and 2013, often meaning families are stuck between prioritising for food and adequate housing. 

One in 10 girls cannot afford to buy menstrual products.

The lack of prioritisation for sanitary products can easily be seen through the Government. Sanitary products in the UK are classed as ‘luxury, non-essential items’ taxed at five per cent, which, according to the Independent, results in their average lifetime cost at an estimated £4,800. Organisations and movements such as The Hygiene Bank have argued the rise and somewhat ignorance in governments attempting to tackle period poverty arises from the entrenched stigmas around female menstruation. While education institutions have implemented lessons on periods through Key Stages Two and Three Personal, Social, Health and Economic Educations lessons, societal discussions on menstruation still remain troubling.

Sanitary products in the UK are classed as “luxury, non-essential items” taxed at 5%.

A recent 2018 research conducted by Action Aid found that roughly 37 per cent of UK women have experienced period shaming, through bullying and isolation, primarily in the workplace and at school. Even more worrying, the poll found that up to 40 per cent of those who had been shamed noted it was their partner who was responsible. 

It is both worrying and uncomfortable to see the constant shaming that women in the UK experience over a natural cycle that occurs in their bodies. Viewing essential sanitary products as a ‘luxury’, rather than a basic hygiene product with the likes of toilet paper, contributes to women being held back in society.

It is both worrying and uncomfortable to see the constant shaming that women in the UK experience over a natural cycle that occurs in their bodies.

Up until Scotland’s dedication to radicalise the accessibility of sanitary products, many women and girls in the UK heavily relied on local and national charities and companies for support. For example, the international global hygiene and health company BodyForm, in response to the UK period crisis, pledged to donate 100,000 sanitary products in 2017 every month for three years. This successfully expanded recently in 2020 to increase the number of pads donated to 6.3 million by 2023 across local community groups and charitable organisations. 

On a more local level, the Period Poverty charity founded in late 2017 by Linda Allbutt and Councillor Ruth Rosenau has distrusted to over 100 foodbanks and 200 schools within the West Midlands. These campaigns taken up outside of the Government have played an instrumental role in attempting to both minimise the rate and effects of period poverty, particularly on disadvantaged communities and normalise the dialogues around them.

Prior to the introduction of the Period Products Bill, Scotland since 2018 had made period products freely available within educational institutions, to which was similarly followed in England in late January 2020. However, the significance of the Bill would require Scottish Ministers to implement a scheme to all local councils and other public bodies, to ensure all sanitary products are as accessible as possible. As well as this, the Bill proposes the responsibility of Ministers to publicise the existence of the period products effectively. 

With the combined effort of all sectors of Government working together to ensure period poverty declines in Scotland, the Bill has been represented to be a symbol in a direction towards a better understanding of menstruation. It is also a step forward towards tackling the gender inequality of poverty faced in the UK. Figures for the UK for 2012/13 reported in the Households Below Average report showed that women still made up a higher proportion of those in poverty, as 37 per cent of those in relative poverty were men, in comparison to 39 for women. 

The bill has been represented to be a symbol in a direction towards a better understanding of menstruation

Governments taking a legal obligation to fight this particularly ‘hidden’ poverty in society will hopefully result in young women and girls not having to make life-changing sacrifices just for access to basic hygiene.  

The problem of period poverty, however, is not just a Scottish nor UK problem. Unfortunately, for many young women and girls globally, humanitarian crises often leave many without access to clean and safe products. Without a dedicated system set up by the Government to provide accessible sanitary products, women and girls are forced to use improvised products ranging from dirty rugs, pieces of clothing, or even dry banana leaves.

Some women and girls are forced to use improvised products.

In Uganda, it is reported that almost 61 per cent of girls miss at least a day of school due to these reasons. Corruption in Uganda has resulted in stopping funds from being used for institutions to provide proper water sanitation and hygiene facilities. Furthermore, the lack of funding for schools to support girls going to school has led to greater stress on the stigma attached to menstruation, resulting in girls in further risks of entering child marriages, early pregnancy, and even domestic violence.  Even though Uganda has worked with organisations such as the Ugandan Red Cross in the ‘Keep a Girl In School Initiative’ to distribute reusable sanitary napkins in school, it is clearly a political obligation to provide free sanitary products will be more beneficial in the long term.

It is important that Scotland is leading the way in turning periods from a stigmatised topic to an important feature of poverty to tackle in just a short period of time. Regardless of where young girls and women are, period stigma remains to be a significant influence in impacting self-esteem, and their ability to even engage in society. For those, especially in the world’s most impoverished communities, lack of education surrounding menstruation can lead to dropping out of education altogether. The Periods Product (Free Bill), therefore, can evolve to become a symbol for recognising the detrimental prejudices that surround periods, and presenting such type of poverty as a contributing cause and consequence of gender inequality. At the end of the day, the only people with the power to tackle period poverty once and for all are governments.



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