In 2017 I spent a considerable amount of time researching and learning about the rapid rise in foodbank use in the UK.  The statistics made for hard reading. It is without question a national disgrace that over half a million emergency food supplies were distributed by The Trussell Trust alone.  However, whilst conducting my research I also learnt that there is an equally shocking, desperate need for toiletries, particularly sanitary products.

Often dubbed ‘period poverty’, the issue of the availability and cost of sanitary products has become a growing media story in recent months.

Foodbanks often respond to these needs, but there are undoubtedly problems associated with that.  Firstly, foodbanks can only be accessed by referral, meaning some women will not attempt to access them, because of embarrassment or stigmatisation. The second issue is that donations of sanitary products to foodbanks are not at a level that can meet demand. Perhaps, again, because of embarrassment, shoppers are unlikely to pop a box of tampons in the collection baskets in supermarkets, over say a tin of beans. The third problem is that even if a family is accessing a foodbank, the individual collecting the supplies may not realise that another member of the family is suffering.

The scale of the problem is becoming more apparent as more research is conducted. A recent survey conducted by Plan International UK found that 10% of girls aged 14-21 have been affected by period poverty.  Furthermore, it was reported by the BBC that schoolgirls are having to make do with tissues and Sellotape, and consequently are being forced to miss school during their periods to avoid the potential embarrassment they face. Other stories have emerged of women making do with old cloths, t-shirts, toilet roll, socks, and newspapers. 

Stories such as these are resulting in understandable outrage amongst people of all genders and positions in society. In addition, the potential for mental health problems, loss of employment, poor performance in school, and hygiene-related illness are all consequences of period poverty. There is a real need to act quickly and eradicate the issue – something the government has not yet addressed.

However, there are many campaigns dedicated to addressing the problem. The research conducted by Women for Independence demonstrates the need for urgent action. Meanwhile, the campaign #freeperiods, led by Amika George, has called for schools to provide students on free school meals with free sanitary products. The campaign has attracted over 150,000 signatories and has enjoyed significant media coverage. There are many social media groups, people taking to the streets and charities working tirelessly and passionately to end the scandal of period poverty, but the government must still take up the mantle if changes are to be made.

In Scotland various proposals have been suggested by the SNP, including the so called ‘s – card’, which would be presented monthly in exchange for sanitary products from healthcare providers. The UK government have so far done very little, and are perhaps reluctant to do so because period poverty is a consequence of its austerity politics.  

The government have a responsibility to improve the situation. Period poverty should make everyone angry. For too long a hidden consequence of austerity, and for too long viewed as a taboo subject, it is time to act.  Sanitary products are a basic human right in a modern society. No one should be left in a position of risking hygiene problems, embarrassment, and missing work or school because they can’t afford sanitary products.

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