Why period poverty is about so much more than just free pads (part 2)

In part 1 of this post, we looked at the development of period poverty action across the UK, starting at grass roots level and culminating in three out of the four UK countries promising to provide free products in schools, colleges and universities, and in Scotland, public buildings too.

In this second part, we’ll look at what period poverty actually is, and whether all this money is really going to fix the problem and make it go away. 

Whilst it isn’t a phrase listed in the dictionary – yet – period poverty can generally be defined as poor menstrual knowledge and access to products. More broadly and perhaps more pertinently internationally, it is also a lack of access to the means to dispose of products, safe toilets and hand washing facilities. Recent research by Plan International has found that despite the UK being one of the world’s richest countries, 1 in 10 of the girls they spoke to couldn’t afford to buy enough menstrual products, having to borrow from friends, overuse products or improvise with other materials. 

However, in their Menstrual Manifesto, Plan International & Brook came up with perhaps the most useful definition of period poverty yet. They describe what they call the Toxic Trio of period poverty:

  1. The cost of menstrual products – too expensive to buy any, or enough
  2. Lack of education about periods – not knowing how periods and the menstrual cycle works
  3. Shame, stigma and taboo – believing there’s something wrong or dirty about your body for having periods. The menstrual cycle is a natural process, but it gets treated like it’s something to be ashamed of.

What’s most helpful about their definition is that it shows that period poverty is not just about products, toilets and bins. Its roots run deep. Shame, stigma and taboo have surrounded periods and the menstrual cycle for a very long time.

Ensuring all children in school have education about periods and the menstrual cycle will only become statutory (outside of statutory science lessons) with the new SRE & RE curriculum, hopefully in September 2020. Even this won’t guarantee really good, effective lessons offering practical advice and support for everyone in school, whatever their gender. Having rolled out products and education in schools all over Scotland, Hey Girls have found that young people are clear about what they want. In a recent peer to peer conference, young people from one Scottish secondary school told 150 assembled student representatives from other schools how the rollout of free products has worked in their school, and then went on to deliver education on periods and the menstrual cycle using, amongst other tools, the My Period cards we worked with Hey Girls to develop last year. Tools like this promote and encourage conversations about the sometimes grimy details of having periods, and young people are finding them really useful. What schools across Scotland have found in this past year of government funding, is that providing products free in schools is pointless unless it’s done alongside good education, and a school wide change of culture.

Chris Bobel’s wonderful book The Managed Body discusses the importance of addressing the worldwide taboo of menstruation, and the social construct of a menstruating body as dirty and in need of concealment. She argues that international attempts at providing technical solutions to period poverty in the form of both disposable and reusable products run the risk of missing this fundamental menstrual stigma and so are likely to fail to make much impact overall. There is much to be learned from her work internationally, as the same is true for our problems here in the UK. It is politically expedient to direct money towards providing free products. A few million here or there looks good to voters and no doubt will help many young people avoid the panic of being caught short whilst at school and for some, this will make a material difference to their lives each month. However, the more we look into period poverty and how it really affects young people, the more we see that in reality, many are missing school due to period pain and issues like fear of leaking and not being able to go to the toilet during class, or bullying because of being on their period. Schools, like workplaces and pretty much everywhere in our current culture, are not yet friendly places to menstruate.

Period poverty is a phrase that catches the imagination. It raises outrage and disbelief that, in one of the world’s richest countries, we could have young people missing school because of their periods. But what are the root causes of people not being able to afford menstrual products? How can we, as a society, tackle these? Food banks, Red Boxes and free products in schools and libraries are needed, but run the risk of disguising a deepening wound beneath. Gender inequality globally contributes to  the menstrual stigma and shame that further fuel period poverty. And poverty, wherever it occurs, has roots that run deep too. These are the issues we really need to turn our attention to.

There are many poster children of this menstrual movement. Tampon tax, menstrual leave, period poverty. They all prompt outraged debate and discussion. And they all lead back to the same demons – gender inequality, untackled poverty, and menstrual shame. Until we can look at these full on in the face and come up with worldwide solutions, providing free pads and tampons (and cups and washable pads), will just be sticking plasters disguising the real issues and allowing a continued lack of real, effective, systemic action.