In March 2019, the British government made a surprising U-turn: After previously opposing the idea, it would provide free tampons and sanitary pads in all English secondary schools and colleges, starting in the new school year in September. On April 13, the Welsh government followed suit by announcing it would supply free products in primary and secondary schools, and just this week on Tuesday, the British government announced that it would also roll out its policy to primary [elementary] schools in England.
The move to tackle period poverty follows in the footsteps of Scotland, which has dedicated £9.2 million since May 2018 to offer sanitary products to all students, and has been welcomed by Scottish politicians and campaigners—with some caveats.
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“The UK government’s announcement on the free provision of sanitary products in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year is a step forward in tackling period poverty,” Scottish Labour MP Danielle Rowley told Broadly. “However, until the root causes of poverty are properly addressed by the current Tory government, period poverty will remain an issue for girls and women across the UK.”
Access to sanitary products has long been thought of as an issue only faced by those in the developing world. But as many as one in ten students in the UK miss school because of their periods, and people have resorted to shoplifting or using unsafe materials like old socks, rags and newspaper to staunch their flow. In the US, nearly one in five girls have missed school due to lack of menstrual products, leading California and Illinois state legislators to pass bills that require high schools to provide tampons and pds.
Period poverty is nothing new, but willingness to discuss the matter in public is. Rowley, in particular, was instrumental in bringing the issue to light. In June 2018, she made history by becoming the first person to talk about being on her period in the House of Commons.
“I would like to raise with you today and to the House, and perhaps you'll excuse me for my lateness, that today I'm on my period—and it's cost me this week already £25,” Rowley told MPs sitting in Parliament. “We know the average cost of a period in the UK over a year is £500—many women can't afford this.”
Though Westminster initially proved less than receptive to tackling the issue, Rowley and other campaigners were undeterred. A new wave of activism around period poverty—including high school students and football fans—galvanized the UK.
In Scotland, North Ayrshire council began supplying all state schools under their remit with free sanitary pads and tampons. Them, a year later in August 2018, they expanded their provision to include public buildings such as libraries and council offices. Almost immediately after that, the Scottish government introduced a national policy of its own, making it the first country in the world to do so. The program now provides free sanitary supplies through the public toilets in all school, university and public buildings.
"Access to period products should be a right, regardless of income."
Campaigners were pleased, but many believe it doesn’t go far enough. Scottish Labour politician Monica Lennon tells Broadly: "Access to period products should be a right, regardless of income, which is why I am continuing to move ahead with plans for legislation to introduce a universal system of free access to period products for everyone in Scotland."
The initial reception in Westminster, to both the Scottish policy itself and the suggestion that it was time England do likewise, was mixed. Some, like Labour MP Dawn Butler, advocated for a similar initiative. Some wanted to see how things played out in Scotland. Others were opposed to addressing it at all—stating that providing children with appropriate sanitary supplies was a matter of personal, parental responsibility.
The March announcement came as a pleasant surprise for campaigners, but concerns have already been raised about some of the most vulnerable people slipping through the gaps of the policy. The British government announcement initially named “girls" as the beneficiaries of the free supplies, though not everyone who menstruates is a woman—nonbinary people and trans men can still get periods. (The Department of Education press office confirmed to Broadly that the products will be supplied to every child who needs them.)
But that doesn’t mean that period poverty will disappear. Unfortunately the problem isn't restricted to such universally appealing targets as impoverished children who want to attend school. Thanks to Conservative austerity policies and welfare cuts, those who are unemployed, on low wages, or are from marginalized communities, frequently find themselves unable to afford the appropriate products for their needs, too.
As campaign group Freedom4Girls points out: “The majority of the work that freedom4girls does now is supportive of women and girls of all ages and people that menstruate of all ages. It’s particularly in league with supporting charities that look after refugees and asylum seekers, women who undergo FGM and who were bleeding months at a time, women who are going through trauma from sexual violence and who are bleeding months per time."
Not only does inadequate sanitary protection act as a barrier to social inclusion, but, as Freedom4Girls explains: "There are still risks to health during menstruation, especially if someone does not have access to safe sanitary protection." Those old socks and newspaper pages mentioned earlier can lead to serious gui infections, while trying to make tampons last longer than they're intended can cause the potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome.
Campaigners are agreed that while it is a victory to have achieved some coverage for one vulnerable group, the work is far from over. "At F4G we think that education and providing products go hand in hand. A lot more needs to be achieved on educating society on the subject. We talk more about sex and relationships to school children than how their bodies actually work, learning to understand the whole puberty and reproductive subject. We need to be educating the girls and boys together to reduce the stigma and taboo around periods after all it happens to half the population but is still not openly talked about."
Danielle Rowley agrees, adding: "If we are more open about periods, and talk about them more, this will help tackle the stigma around periods which is also a big barrier to women asking for supplies."
The Treasury did not respond to Broadly’s inquiries as to whether or not there are plans to expand coverage to include other groups in need, but campaigners intend to continue applying pressure to achieve broader and even universal coverage. "I want to see a UK where women and girls no longer worry about how they will manage during their next period, or having to contemplate missing school or work due to a lack of menstrual products," Rowley says. She, along with colleagues like Monica Lennon, are going to press forward on trying to achieve it.