We Need To Talk About Period Poverty In The UK

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
When Marie* has her period, she fashions a sanitary pad from a sock and some gaffer tape. She used to line her knickers with strips of an old T-shirt but says she’s found that socks hold more blood and cause fewer leakages. It’s still messy and distressing.
Every month, hundreds of UK schoolgirls like Marie resort to measures like these because they can’t afford to buy the safe, hygienic sanitary pads and tampons sold in the shops.
“I feel dirty and stressed [when I’m on my period] at school – I can’t concentrate properly and I’m embarrassed to tell the teachers why,” says the teenager, who is relieved that school has finished for the summer. Marie has, on occasion, skipped school altogether, finding it easier to cope with her period from home.
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“My parents don’t have much money and I don’t want to ask for money to buy tampons, it isn’t the most important thing they have to worry about, so I just don’t talk about it,” Marie explains.
Hearing stories like Marie's shocked fellow schoolgirl, 17-year-old Amika George, and propelled her to the front of the fight against period poverty. She is calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to give every girl on free school meals access to free sanitary products. The petition Amika has launched needs to reach 100k signatures in order to get the issue debated in parliament, and has won the support of Cathy Newman, Ken Loach and Cherie Blair, to name a few.
“At first I couldn’t believe it was true – and what shocked me more is that no one in power is doing anything about it,” says Amika, who has just finished her AS level exams. “I know when I even miss a day of school I have so much to catch up on – I can’t imagine how hard it must be to miss a week every month.”
“It isn’t just a matter of hygiene – it is about dignity. If from the age of 10 you’ve had to suffer with this, it has lasting damage on your self-confidence and your relationships with other people because you feel isolated and ashamed.”
Since campaigning on the issue, she’s heard stories from women all over the country. “Women have told me about combing every sofa in the house, searching for spare pennies to spend on pads or tampons – it just shouldn’t be happening in modern-day Britain,” says the teenager.
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She didn’t even tell her mum because she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford sanitary pads. Nobody thinks it’s happening here, but it is happening here.

Tina Leslie, Freedom4Girls
Worrying parallels have been drawn between the struggles of UK schoolgirls and those of impoverished students miles away in Kenya. Tina Leslie set up Freedom4Girls to help schoolgirls tackle period poverty in Kenya but was contacted for donations by a school in Leeds, which had become increasingly concerned about the number of girls frequently missing school.
“I wasn’t surprised when I was contacted by the school – it was bound to happen, with child poverty and visits to food banks increasing year by year,” Leslie explains. “Just like my work in Kenya, if you cannot afford food everything else has to wait, and you have to make do with toilet paper or anything you can get your hands on – whether that’s bits of old cloth, leaves, newspaper, corn husks or mattress stuffing, as I see in Kenya,” says the campaigner, who points to benefit sanctions, high rents and rising costs of living as some of the damaging contributors to period poverty.
Freedom4Girls joined forces with Bloody Good Period, a charity which typically gives period supplies to asylum seekers and refugees, to help the schoolgirls in Leeds. “It’s a human right to be able to access education and these girls aren’t because they have periods, because of their gender,” says Gabby Edlin from the charity. “How can we let schoolgirls get to such a desperate point and humiliate themselves? It’s shameful.”
One of the Leeds girls to confide in her teachers said her family had begun using cheap washing-up liquid for everything from washing dishes to washing their clothes and hair.
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“She didn’t even tell her mum [about her periods] because she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford sanitary pads,” explains Leslie. “Even if they’re cheap – if you have a mum and two teenage daughters and the mum is working on a minimum wage or zero hours contract, it’s hard to make ends meet. Nobody thinks it’s happening here, but it is happening here.”
The number of people in crisis and turning to food banks continues to rise in the UK, so it follows that period poverty is on the rise, too. If families can’t afford even to put food on the table, how will they afford sanitary products, which cost in the region of £18,000 in a woman’s lifetime?
The Trussell Trust food bank network handed out more than one million three-day emergency food supplies between April 2016 and March this year, and is actively encouraging the public to donate sanitary towels and tampons to their local food bank, says Emma Thorogood, a spokesperson for the charity.
Their volunteers have told of young girls making a single tampon last all day – putting them in danger of toxic shock syndrome – while others become bullying targets because of the smell that comes from not changing sanitary pads regularly. Whitehawk food bank in Brighton now runs a ‘monthlies’ scheme, where young women can collect a pack of sanitary products, wipes and a chocolate bar every month.

Volunteers tell of young girls making a single tampon last all day – putting them in danger of toxic shock syndrome.

The work being done by charities is amazing, but Amika and other campaigners argue that the government needs to create a more sustainable solution so that people aren’t reliant on donations.
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A few weeks back, Scotland launched a six-month pilot programme in Aberdeen, to give low-income women free access to period supplies. It’s a world-first and will be used to build the case for tackling period poverty with future Scottish government policies. The initiative is being run by charity Community Food Initiatives North East and four schools are among those participating.
Meanwhile, the Green Party and the Women’s Equality Party showed their support for tackling period poverty by including Amika’s proposal in their election manifestos, and the Liberal Democrats addressed period poverty independently in their campaign, too. Amika says she was disappointed that her own MP, Conservative Matthew Offord, didn’t respond to any of the many emails she sent him about the issue in the run-up to the general election.
Amika wants to see periods being talked about more openly in order to normalise them and remove any feelings of shame or stigma – feelings which are likely to be even worse for women facing period poverty.
“People live in their own bubbles and don’t think of periods as something they should be talking about – it is one of the reasons period poverty is a hidden problem,” she says. “Period products are still called things like ‘whisper’ and ‘discreet’ and those kind of messages about being secretive [about periods] are subconsciously taught to us at a young age.” Boys should also be taught properly about periods – and we could do without the adverts that use blue liquid to illustrate having a period. “It is ridiculous,” says Amika.
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“I would like to see people talk openly about periods and period poverty, and how to solve it – the solution is so straightforward and simple and period poverty really shouldn’t be happening in the UK.”
*Name has been changed
To sign Amika’s petition click here.
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