Here's an insanely depressing story to ease you into the middle of the week. Teenage girls in Britain, one of the most developed countries in the world, are skipping school because they can't afford to buy sanitary products when they're on their period.
Leeds-based campaign group Freedom4Girls is more used to sending sanitary towels to women and girls in Kenya. But now they're helping women much closer to home—nearly 7,000 miles closer to home, to be precise.
"We knew there was an underlying problem already," explains Tina Leslie of Freedom4Girls, pointing to the massive increase in people using food banks across the UK, triggered by the government's arbitrary and unfair welfare cuts. "If you can't afford food, you're not going to be able to afford expensive sanitary products," she concludes.
Last month, a former colleague who now works in a Leeds school got in touch out of the blue. "She said to me, I've got three girls I've taken under my wing at school and they've told me that they've not got enough money to buy sanitary products," Leslie remembers. "So I set about trying to find an immediate solution to that problem, which was trying to get some sanitary protection at that school. But then I realized this was a wider problem in the UK, one that affects many of the working poor." After making enquiries, she discovered this was a problem at schools across the city.
You might expect girls on their period to miss school in less developed countries such as India, where widespread stigma around menstruation even stops menstruating women from attending places of worship. But women and girls in developed economies also struggle with the cost of basic sanitary care.
In Canada, community-groups in Saskatchewan's northern communities work to distribute products to indigenous women who live below the poverty line and are unable to afford food, let alone a 40-pack of tampons. In New York, some public schools now hand out pads and tampons to girls in need from low income families. Meanwhile, ill-equipped homeless women in cities all over the world must endure a uniquely miserable time of the month.
Speaking to BBC Radio Leeds, one teenage girl explained how she tried to improvise in lieu of proper sanitary items. "I wrapped a sock around my underwear just to stop the bleeding, because I didn't want to get shouted at," she said. "And I wrapped a whole tissue roll around my underwear, just to keep my underwear dry until I got home. I once sellotaped tissue to my underwear. I didn't know what else to do."
The schoolgirl added that she was from a single parent family with five children, and her mother couldn't afford to help. As a result, she skips a few days of school each month.
The Trussell Trust, a major British food bank, deals with period poverty on a daily basis. "Our food bank managers have met women having to use socks, toilet roll, and even newspaper instead of sanitary products before they were referred to a food bank," says spokesperson Adrian Curtis "It's heartbreaking to think that young women are having to endure stigma, shame, and health issues because they can't afford to pay for essentials like sanitary products. But this is the harsh reality for many women in the UK today."
Leslie feels research is needed to assess the scale of the problem. "We're asking a question that's very taboo, and girls feel shame about it," she says. "But actually they're not having any dignity, because they're having to use toilet paper or socks. And we still don't know how big the problem is."
Until then, many girls across the UK may currently be skipping classes, priced out of their right to an education simply because they're female.