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Period Poverty: The Private Pandemic Society is Too Ashamed to Talk About

Menstruation is a taboo topic, so much so that period poverty faced by women, girls and those with periods gets swept under the rug.

“I knew I was going to start my period because I had been having cramps on and off for a few days. At the time, my mum didn’t have much money coming in and I felt guilty having to ask for money. Instead, I would roll up wads of tissue paper, and that would usually see me through. “It was only when I started my newspaper round at 13; I was able to afford the nice pads. They even had wings! Then, at 14, I switched to the pill and eventually, my periods stopped. No girl should be using hormonal contraceptive because they can’t afford the expense of good-quality period products”.

This is one of many stories from someone who has suffered from period poverty in the UK. Women, girls and those with periods have faced a secret global pandemic for decades.

Period poverty is where a person has no access to safe sanitary products. It also includes a lack of menstrual hygiene education and waste management. It becomes difficult to manage their periods with minimal finances and social stigma.

In one of the wealthiest societies, our friends, family, and neighbours are suffering. Those on the breadline must choose between their basic needs - food and sanitary products. They are being robbed of their dignity.

This is the hidden poverty in Britain. It is not difficult to see that sanitary items are often out of reach for many. Last year, Intimina, a menstrual cup brand, found that a woman spends £10.24 every month on pads and tampons; paired with the added cost for new underwear and almost five pounds for pain relief.

For the average reproductive lifetime (from 12 to 52), a person could spend up to £5000 for their periods. This equates to a year’s worth of work-related transport, wardrobe and other items. Like other forms of poverty in Britain, the primary cause of period poverty is the lack of financial aid. Yet, the stigma attached to periods is also having a more damaging effect on those who need help.

Girls rights charity, Plan International UK, researched how girls felt about their periods. They found that 48% of girls aged 14-21 feel embarrassed by their periods. A further 75% admitted they felt ashamed when purchasing sanitary products.

Unlike COVID-19, this pandemic isn’t new. It has taken a long time to be a part of poverty conversations over the years. Recent data revealed that 49 per cent of girls missed school because of period poverty. Adding on, 59 per cent of these young girls then made up lies or an alternative excuse about why they were absent.

Intimate health specialist, Dr Shirin Lakhani has found how common period poverty is. She said:

“In the UK, it’s believed that as many as 1 in 10 girls can’t afford to buy menstrual products. They also struggle to afford them which forces them to wear products for longer than is safe or hygienic”.

Also, Plan International UK that period poverty lead to 140,000 children missing school in one year. Dr Shirin Lakhani said:

“Girls missing school because of period poverty is unthinkable. It can have a profound effect on education and the taboo surrounding it can affect a child’s future success”.

Molly Fenton, a young activist from Cardiff, has raised awareness of period poverty. According to Molly, there haven’t been enough progressive steps to end period poverty.

“It’s still not sorted out. The tampon tax abolishment is great, but this campaign was about even before I knew of period poverty”.

The 17-year-old student is the founder of the Love Your Period Instagram account. It promotes period positivity and education for young girls like herself.

Also, she is a member of the Welsh Government’s Period Dignity round table. This scheme aims to tackle period poverty in schools.

“The way I see it, it’s my job not to say ‘Oh great, it’s sorted’. I’ve got to find the picky bits and try and sort them out”.

The story above is from the journal Girlhood: The Story. Maria Purcell, The Hood co-founder, created the journal to support those with periods. It encompasses a variety of period stories from inspirational women and menstrual education. She said:

“My niece started her period when she was nine. I wanted to find her something that would support her at such an early age. I couldn’t find anything, so my co-founder and I made our own”.

Maria believes that we are heading towards a future free of period poverty, but there is still more work to do.

“Now, we are making the right steps, but there needs to be more change. We need to apply pressure on the policymakers and keep it at the top of the agenda”.

Molly also hopes that there is a future without period poverty. But this is only possible if we remove the stigma around periods.

“We need to sit down and have a sensible conversation without any embarrassment. I’ve said from the beginning; the stigma is the issue. We could be a lot further forward if people weren’t so embarrassed”.

Young girls and those with periods shouldn’t have to miss school because of the burden of their biology. Furthermore, women should not have to fear losing their job because they called in sick for work. Adding on, no one should face the choice between having gas and electric or period products.

In 21st Century Britain, we are failing our girls, women and those with periods. Ending period poverty should not be like getting blood from a stone.

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