Since an eye-opening survey by Plan International UK in 2017 reported that 1 in 10 girls were unable to afford menstrual products, there have been some positive changes. Notably, the UK government removed the 5% VAT that was added to tampons, pads and towels.
In this article, we look at the issue of period poverty to see what has improved since the surbey and what more can be done to help end period poverty.
What is period poverty?
Period poverty is the term used to describe not being able to afford menstrual products. It is estimated that currently, more than 137,000 children across the UK have missed school days due to period poverty.
Positive steps in recent years to end period poverty
In 2017, Scotland became the first country to provide menstruation products for free in schools. A number of countries around the world have followed suit.
Scotland also became the first country in the world to make menstruation products free. Since 2020, local authorities in Scotland have had a legal duty to ensure items such as tampons and menstruation pads are available for free to anyone who needs them. As a result, period products are now available for free from community centres, youth clubs and pharmacies.
Also in 2020, after a seven year campaign by many activists, the VAT on menstruation products – referred to as ‘tampon tax’ – was abolished in the UK.
Some challenges that still need to be overcome
- According to Plan International, the global pandemic has deepened the period poverty crisis.
“Periods don’t stop for a pandemic, and whether we’re talking about girls in the UK, Rwanda, Australia or Nepal, the coronavirus crisis is making it harder for girls and young women to manage their periods safely and with dignity. Many of the issues we’re seeing existed before the pandemic, but the virus is making the situation worse. We already know that the coronavirus outbreak is having a devastating impact on family finances all over the world, but now we see that girls and women are also facing widespread shortages and price hikes on period products, with the result that many are being forced to make do with whatever they can find to manage their period. This can pose a real threat to their health and may increase the risk of infection.”Rose Caldwell, Chief Executive of Plan International UK
- Stigma and shame about menstruation are still prevalent.
“Our experts on the frontline tell us that the stigma and shame girls face around their periods is also on the rise. Lack of access to clean water, lack of toilets with doors, and difficulties disposing of used products are just some of the challenges they face when trying to manage their periods in a private, safe and dignified manner. Period stigma is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality and can have a serious impact on girls’ life chances. It’s therefore critical that governments and health agencies prioritise menstrual hygiene management in their response to the coronavirus crisis and treat sanitary products as essential items during the pandemic and beyond.”Rose Caldwell, Chief Executive of Plan International UK
- Environmental concerns about the products being used, and their disposal.
The disposal of single-use menstrual products in the UK generates 200,000 tonnes of waste per year, according to the Women’s Environmental Network. As many as 1.5 – 2 billion period products are flushed down the toilet every year.
Many disposable period products contain up to 90% plastic, meaning they will take an incredibly long time to biodegrade.
Period pants are currently classed as clothing and so VAT must be paid on them. Monica Lennon, the MSP who has campaigned about tackling period poverty since 2016 and led the campaign to provide products free of charge in Scotland, is calling on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to remove VAT from washable and reusable period products.
Some of the people and organisations currently campaigning about period poverty
As well as Monica Lennon, the MSP previously mentioned, there are a number of people and organisations working to end period poverty. If you’d like to find out more about the issue, and do something to help end period poverty, here are some organisations working in the area to get you started:
- Free Periods is a not-for-profit organisation fighting to ensure that no young person has to miss out on their education because they menstruate.
- Freedom4Girls is a UK charity working to support those who menstruate by challenging the stigmas, taboos and gender inequalities associated with menstruation. They do this by providing education, providing period products, promoting product choice and supporting environmentally and financially sustainable options.
- Plan International UK work with girls around the world to end period poverty and challenge shame and stigma.
- Hey Girls! is a ‘buy one, donate one’ social enterprise, producing environmentally-friendly, plastic-free period products that fund the fight to end period poverty in the UK.