Period poverty has been described as the "hidden side of inequality"—a state of deprivation that uniquely affects women and girls who are too poor to buy their own sanitary products. It has been documented in rural indigenous communities, jails and prisons, and among homeless women. Shockingly, it has also been found to afflict schoolchildren in the UK.
In March, a charity announced that girls attending school in the industrial city of Leeds were forced to skip classes because they could not afford to buy tampons or pads while menstruating.
It's a situation that Hannah, a campaigner with the feminist activism group Fourth Wave, knows all too well. When she was a teenager at school, she would regularly resort to using wadded-up toilet roll instead of sanitary products. Sometimes, she would simply leave class and go home if she got her period. She would also scrimp on food and transport so she could afford tampons and pads.
"I walked to and from school, which was an hour each way," she says, "because the bus fare was extortionate. I definitely skipped breakfast every day while I was at school. I would be given lunch money, but I would put a little bit aside and eat slightly less.
Watch: The Activists Making Sure Kids Don't Miss School Because of Their Periods
"Looking back on it, it seems ridiculous that I'd have to budget so hard," she adds. "I was a child!"
On an overcast April evening in London's Feminist Library, Hannah is joining Fourth Wave to run a donation drive for sanitary products. When I meet her in the Library, there are already several large garbage bags full of tampons and pads. Throughout the evening, people continuously drop in and leave plastic bags of donations.
By the end of the night, Fourth Wave will have collected almost 4,500 individual pads, tampons, and pantyliners, totaling about £600 in cost. These will be donated to a local school nearby who is experiencing a "significant problem" with children skipping class during their periods, says Fourth Wave activist Zoe.
"This is nothing compared to what a normal person might use over their entire life," Zoe sighs, looking over the huge pile of donations. That is, she says, part of the problem—menstruation is a monthly expenditure that many people just can't afford.
"We know [the problem is] widespread based on anecdotal evidence; I've heard reports coming in from all over the country. But one of the problems is there have been no real studies done," she says, adding that actual research is now in the works to discover the true extent of period poverty among schoolchildren in the country.
The stigma around periods may also pose a problem for researchers attempting to uncover the scale of the problem. For many people, talking about periods is awkward and embarrassing enough, let alone the idea that you may not be able to afford sanitary protection. In fact, it took Hannah years to talk about her experience of period poverty.
"The only time I came out about it was when Fourth Wave came out with this petition," she says, explaining that the taboo associated with menstruation was just too great. "I just accepted it. [Back] then, I didn't have the confidence. I didn't see anyone talking about periods in this sort of way."
Adrian Curtis, the food bank network director for the Trussell Trust, a UK charity, says that period poverty can affect women of all ages. "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," he told Metro.
"But this is the harsh reality for many women in the UK today—Trussell Trust 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."
There is some hopeful news, with companies like Bodyform promising to donate 200,000 packs of sanitary products over the next three years to those in need. Pharmacy chain Boots is also trialling an in-store donation point for customers to buy and gift sanitary products to a local food bank.
While this is welcome assistance, it is likely to serve as a Band-Aid on the fundamental problem that drives period poverty. "There have been so many cuts to benefits and welfare that sanitary products fall further and further on the list, below heating and food," Hannah explains. "It's horrible, but it's getting worse."
Hannah is lobbying the government as part of Fourth Wave to provide sanitary protection for free in all UK schools. Her Change.org campaign has already attracted close to 60,000 signatures. (A Scottish politician has already proposed a bill to provide this service, but it would only apply to schools in Scotland, and not England or Wales.) She is hoping that the UK government will sit up and take notice. No other child should have to go through what she went through, she says.
"It just shouldn't even be a thing that's happening," Hannah says. "It's just ridiculously important that every child and person has dignity when they're using the bathroom."