The additional financial burden caused by paying for period products and stigma associated with periods increases inequality between different groups of women.
The issue of period poverty has been a constant, albeit often overlooked, topic of conversation for some time as a result of both the barriers posed to women and girls by the associated stigma and problems caused by not being able to access or afford products like tampons or pads. Period poverty is particularly problematic because it affects the half of the population who already face considerable obstacles in society, and within women pushes disadvantaged groups further behind. Scotland has shown us, as the first country ever to do so, that it is possible to provide these products for free for those who need them.
Whilst period poverty may not seem like an issue that would exist in the UK, it is in fact a major issue, as pads and tampons are considered an “luxury, non-essential item”. This definition, that is completely nonsensical for anyone who has ever had a period, means that, on average, a woman will spend £4,800 on period products over her lifetime. Such costs prevent 10% of girls and women from being able to afford sanitary products, with around 137,700 British students missing entire days of school because of period poverty every year. A student staying home whenever it is that time of the month equates to being left at a disadvantage of approximately 145 days of school. This is the equivalent of over two terms of teaching time missed — over half of one academic year lost because of a natural process that is turned into a burden by lack of consideration by the government and society. New Zealand recently responded to this issue by announcing that all schools would provide free period products to combat this cycle of poverty.
Related to the financial burden of sanitary products is the taboo on periods and obstacles to discussing coping and pain mechanisms effectively. This stigma leaves many girls feeling like they cannot ask for help and close to half of girls asked in one survey feeling embarrassed. In some cultures, periods are seen as being ‘dirty’ or insufficiently important to spend money on to obtain the necessary period products. Girls begin life at a disadvantage because of their gender. Even in the UK in general, most women could probably remember a time when they have secretly passed a friend a tampon or pad in an attempt to not draw attention to periods. If a regular, natural process that for many girls and women is a normal part of being female remains a source of shame, we will never be able to put half of the population on a level playing field with the other half. We will not be able to fully let girls feel empowered and powerful as women if they feel they have to consistently hide a significant part of their lives or risk being marginalised.
As with many inequalities in society, period poverty inevitably has the most effect on those groups who are already disadvantaged or marginalised, such as minority ethnic communities. Groups that are already marginalised are much likelier to face financial difficulties and find it harder to access vital information or resources as it is. Minority ethnic groups do face greater obstacles but they are also not homogenous and must be engaged in the process so that an intersectional approach is taken that adequately takes account of individual needs and the needs of specific communities. For example, much has moved online recently but minority ethnic groups are also likelier to face digital poverty which means that they are excluded from these processes. It is generally known by now that the pandemic has exposed the societal inequalities that has left BAME communities disproportionately negatively impacted by Covid-19 for reasons other than health. This therefore means that they are also likely to have been disproportionately impacted by the spike in period poverty during the pandemic.
At JAN Trust, we fight for the right of women and girls from marginalised communities to reach their full potential. We empower and educate individuals from BAME and marginalised communities to provide them with the skills and knowledge they need the thrive. Our holistic approach involves our beneficiaries and stakeholders to ensure that programmes satisfy their needs. We must involve all people, including men and women who do not experience period poverty, in the campaign towards true gender equality and equality between women. You can begin by evaluating how you talk about periods or donating products to your local charity or foodbank. Write to your local MP or councillor and tell them about why you think it is important to provide free period products to those who need them.