The number of girls affected by period poverty in the UK has tripled during the pandemic

Charities have seen calls for help increase by up to six times and expect this will continue to grow

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Plan International UK found that one in 10 girls aged 14-21 couldn’t afford or access period products. Since the start of the pandemic, that figure has tripled.

Bloody Good Period, a charity that supplies menstrual products to those who can’t afford them, has donated over 60,000 packs of sanitary pads since the beginning of last year. They have also seen calls for help increase by six times the usual amount and expect this demand will continue to grow.

Freedom4Girls, another charity dedicated to fighting period poverty, explained that the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions and consequent job losses are the two key factors behind the rise in period poverty. They told us: “If you can’t afford a loaf of bread, you won’t be able to afford period products. With a lot of community spaces closed it’s hard for people to get the support they need.”

‘Period poverty’ refers to being unable to afford, or access, suitable period products. If menstruating women and girls don’t have the products they need, they’re forced to use alternatives or to not change their tampons or pads frequently. Neither of these options are appropriate, comfortable or safe, and can lead to infections.

Katie* is a university student who lived in her family home during the first lockdown. She is no stranger to using toilet paper as an alternative to period products but had to resort to her old socks because of the toilet paper shortages. “I have never felt so dirty,” she says.

She explains she was unable to leave the house to do her own shopping because of the Covid-19 restrictions. She also felt unable to ask her parents to buy her tampons when they were already worried about money – she believed that money would have been better spent on food for the family.

“I think it was more than the money, though,” she continues. “There was no chance I was going to have that conversation with my dad. It sounds stupid when you say it out loud but that’s just how it is.”

Period poverty is largely rooted in the stigma which surrounds menstruation. Like Katie, many girls are too embarrassed to even speak about their periods, let alone seek help for them. It is not just a risk to women’s physical health, it also threatens their confidence and self-esteem. They miss out on opportunities when they are housebound by their period and lack of means to manage it. It is understood that almost 50 per cent of teenage girls in the UK have missed an entire day of school because of their period.

Freedom4Girls told us their drive towards change is so often prevented because positions of authority and power are dominated by men of a “particular background,” with little understanding or knowledge about how menstruating people manage their periods. They added that many of the men holding these positions refuse to believe there is even an issue, making progress very difficult.

However, it does seem that the noise being made by campaigners is starting to be heard. Scotland recently became the first country in the world to make period products free for everyone. In England, free period products have only been made available to schools and colleges.

The long-disputed Tampon Tax was also finally abolished in the UK in December 2020. The tax stirred up controversy because it meant period products were classed as ‘luxury items’ – a notion that has been branded as sexist by many people. “The Tampon Tax shouldn’t have existed in the first place,” says Freedom4Girls. “But we expect nothing less in a patriarchal society where female health needs are both secondary to males’ and commercialised into the beauty industry.”

These are significant steps in the right direction but there is still more which needs to be done. Only 50 per cent of schools and colleges have signed up to the government scheme which supplies free period products. Both Freedom4Girls and Bloody Good Period, alongside other campaigners, are now calling for the scheme to change so that schools ‘opt out’ rather than ‘opting in.’

Also, not all period products have been made tax-free. Period pants have been excluded from the Tampon Tax exemption because the treasury has classified them as ‘underwear.’ Being a reusable and long-lasting form of menstrual care, they are more accessible, environmentally friendly and sustainable than disposable period products.

Modibodi, Bloody Good Period and The Women’s Environmental Network are petitioning for the government to include period pants in the Tampon Tax exemption. The petition can be signed here.

To help end period poverty in the UK, supporting the work of dedicated charities such as Freedom4Girls and Bloody Good Period is recommended. You can also write to your local MP and demand their help with this issue. Even just having an open conversation about periods with friends – especially men – will help normalise the topic of menstruation. Freedom4Girls stresses that “period poverty needs to be taken seriously and addressed whether the pandemic exists or not.”

*Name has been changed.

Featured image by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels. 

Related stories recommended by the writer:

Period pants remain taxed despite government’s claim to remove VAT from menstrual products

Here are some of the best sustainable and ethical brands to shop from this year

• 18 things you definitely shouldn’t find embarrassing about your vagina