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How has coronavirus affected period poverty in the UK?

Requests for help from people who can’t afford period products like pads and tampons have risen during the pandemic. Not only is financial support needed, but also access to menstrual healthcare and education, which have been limited by lockdowns and school closures.

'Period poverty' not only means that people who menstruate can’t afford products like pads and tampons. It also means that there is a poverty of menstrual education and support for girls, women and those who menstruate. Covid-19 has further highlighted the different ways that period poverty can be experienced – and how it is not just linked to the affordability of period products.

Period poverty remains a challenge in the UK, as highlighted by research, news and social media. In March 2020, a report by Plan International UK – The state of girls’ rights in the UK: Early insights into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on girls – provided some shocking figures on how period poverty was affecting girls during lockdown:

  • More than one in ten girls aged 14-21 (11%) had not been able to afford period products. These girls were using makeshift products, such as toilet roll (54%), socks (11%), other fabric (8%) and newspaper/paper (6%).
  • More than one in five girls who could afford period products (22%) were struggling to access them, mostly because they could not find them in the shops (64%).

Community and non-profit initiatives in the UK face new challenges related to Covid-19 as they continue to support those experiencing period poverty. Challenges relate not only to accessing products, but also to the provision of menstrual health education and menstrual healthcare, further highlighting that period poverty does not just equate to financial poverty and product affordability. If the UK government is to meet its target of ending period poverty globally by 2030, they must recognise how Covid-19 is affecting all aspects of period poverty.

What is the broader definition of period poverty?

To many, the term period poverty refers to an inability to afford products, such as pad and tampons. While this is certainly an important part of the problem, for years advocates and activists have stressed that period poverty also includes a poverty of menstrual health education and access to menstrual healthcare, linked to wider issues of stigma and shame around periods that is still prevalent in society. This broader definition has been recognised by some in the UK, but policy is still predominantly based on provision of free products as the solution to ending period poverty.

Indeed, the UK government’s announcement that it would commit to ending period poverty by 2030 is mainly based on this ethos. The plan focuses solely on the financial aspect of such poverty.

The pandemic has not only amplified financial poverty, which affects individuals’ ability to purchase products, but also increased poverty in relation to the accessibility of products, menstrual health education and menstrual healthcare. This is because the places that provide free products, vital education and healthcare (such as schools, health clinics and community centres) have had to close due to lockdown, leaving many without support.

How has access to products been affected by Covid-19?

Our research into period poverty and Covid-19 finds that projects that support those experiencing period poverty in the UK have experienced a massive increase in requests for products since March 2020. For example, Bloody Good Period (a London-based charity that supports asylum-seekers and refugees) has reported an increase in product demand of nearly six times their usual amount. Accessing period products has been a key challenge during the pandemic, but not solely due to financial issues.

First, stockpiling and hoarding behaviours have limited the accessibility of products for those who may need them. Restrictions on the number of products you can buy, introduced as a result of these behaviours, have made it more difficult to purchase items in person and online.

Second, projects that provide products to food banks, community centres, schools and other organisations have faced additional challenges due to public health restrictions. Many are volunteer-run and rely on donations being sent to a central ‘packing’ station to then be distributed. But access to volunteers has proven difficult over the last year, due to social distancing, shielding, travel restrictions, lockdowns and changes in work or childcare demands. These have all affected people’s ability to assist with the packing and distribution of products.

Covid-19 has also resulted in different challenges for schools that provide access to free products to their pupils. As with period poverty projects, an increase in requests for products was reported by the majority of schools that have taken part in our research.

With repeated school closures, new ways of distributing products to those that may need them have been set up. Requests for products from pupils during lockdown can now be received via teachers or tutors, or from central wellbeing teams, who will then send them out. Schools, particularly in Wales and Scotland, have promoted the use of reusable products during lockdown, with pupils providing positive feedback on their usage and an increase in requests for reusable products being noted as a result.

How have the other aspects of period poverty been affected by Covid-19?

Schools and projects have also moved their menstrual health education training for teachers to an online platform, which has received positive feedback. The flexibility to run sessions with schools across a geographical area, combined with less travel time, has worked well for those delivering the training and increased their ability to run more sessions at different times of the day. Projects that provide such training for schools have seen an increase in attendance at sessions, attributed to the flexibility in online session availability.

While this has proved to be successful, it is not known whether the teachers that have attended the training have been able to run any menstrual health education sessions with their pupils. Projects expressed concerns that menstrual health education in schools will not be viewed as a priority, despite now being mandatory in some parts of the UK, as schools continue to deal with Covid-19-related setbacks in education.

Indeed, existing menstrual health education in schools remains poor and inconsistent, and does not provide girls with the necessary knowledge they need to maintain or improve their menstrual health (a key aim of the mandatory education).

Yet this shift to using online platforms is not a solution for all. Those working with people experiencing period poverty have relayed how ‘digital poverty’ has prevented community-based sessions on menstrual health from being moved fully online. Not everybody has access to a smartphone, wifi or computer to join these sessions. Similarly, they may lack access to safe spaces to discuss ‘private’ issues.

This remains a challenge as projects search for new ways to connect with the communities they support. As with school pupils, there is a risk that people who menstruate are losing opportunities to maintain or improve their menstrual health through lack of accessible education.

What are the implications?

Before the pandemic, the menstrual activism and advocacy world was rapidly gaining momentum in the UK, with changes to policy being introduced by the government. Not only had there been progress centrally, with the establishment of the Period Poverty Taskforce, but the provision of free products in schools and hospitals and the introduction of mandatory menstrual health education in England had been agreed. Scotland had made considerable progress in tackling period poverty, with Wales also providing specific funding to address period poverty in local authorities and schools.

Since March 2020, there have been real concerns that the implementation of these changes has been ‘lost’ in the rapidly evolving Covid-19 landscape. Projects are concerned that period poverty will continue to increase in these times, and that existing progress will be undone. The shift in government, local authority and educational and healthcare priorities over the past 12 months has affected some projects’ ability to deliver their services and support those experiencing period poverty.

Nevertheless, in November 2020, Scotland passed the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill making it legal duty on local authorities to ensure that free period products are available to anyone who needs them. In December 2020, Northern Ireland agreed to make free period products accessible in schools.

These monumental steps happened during the pandemic, recognising that menstruation and period poverty should remain a priority (albeit focused on financial aspects of period poverty). It’s time to build on this, and the work that continues to be delivered to support those that experience all aspects of period poverty, if the UK is truly committed to ending period poverty by 2030.

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Author: Gemma Williams
Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash
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