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How is the cost of living crisis affecting period poverty in the UK?

Rising prices are increasing the cost of period products, both for individuals and the charities that support those experiencing period poverty. Demand for free or affordable tampons and pads, as well as the use of hygiene banks, is growing, as budgets are squeezed.

The cost of living crisis is contributing to an increase in demand for free and affordable period products. The lack of access to tampons and pads due to financial constraints – known as ‘period poverty’ – is on the rise in the UK. In the first three months of 2022, the charity Bloody Good Period reported a 78% increase in the need for free period products (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of free packs distributed – by year

Source: Bloody Good Period

Period poverty is often talked about in terms of financial hardship, where people struggle to afford period products. In 2019, the UK government pledged to end period poverty by 2030. Their approach has varied greatly across the country, with policies to improve access to products being introduced in some, but not all, areas.

These include the Welsh government’s provision of £1 million to tackle period poverty, the Department for Education’s ‘Period Products Scheme’ in England, the passing of Scotland’s ‘Period Products (Free Provision) Bill’ and the approval of a pilot project to provide period products in all primary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland.

In addition, the ‘tampon tax’ was abolished in January 2021, scrapping the 5% VAT on disposable period products nationwide, in recognition that period products are essential items.

Why is period poverty still such a problem?

Research shows that many people struggled to access period products during the pandemic and continue to do so today. In a study surveying 240 people, 85% stated they had difficulties getting period products during lockdown. Of these, 30% reported that this was due to financial problems, including losing their jobs or being furloughed (Williams et al, 2022).

Non-profit organisations that provide access to free period products experienced huge increases in demand for products during the pandemic, highlighting some of the reasons why period poverty increased despite the introduction of government policies to address the issue.

The reasons for this rise included the emergence of new groups experiencing period poverty for the first time (such as students and NHS staff), supply shortages and hoarding of products, the closure of places that would normally provide access to products (such as schools, libraries and public toilets) and the failure to recognise period products as ‘essential items’ in care packages for those who were shielding.

Although lockdown measures were lifted in the UK in July 2021, concerns over funding uncertainties and central support remain for the organisations that provide support to those experiencing period poverty. Much of this is linked to the shift in government priorities during the pandemic.

Non-profit organisations will continue to provide the majority of support, until the policies introduced to improve access to free period products are effectively implemented across the whole of the UK.

What about the cost of living crisis?

There is a risk that rising prices will further exacerbate period poverty in the UK. There have already been reports of large increases in demand for products as a result of the cost of living crisis during the first quarter of 2022.

People are having to choose between essentials as the cost of energy and food continues to rise. In this case, hygiene essentials – which include period products – are often forsaken. As a result, there has been a rise in the use of ‘hygiene banks’ – services that provide access to toiletries and other essential hygiene items including soap, toothpaste, cleaning products and nappies (as well as period products).

An increase in the production cost of disposable period products due to inflation and supply issues is also having an effect. Some supermarkets and suppliers have increased the cost of such period products. Tesco, for example, has doubled the price of its least expensive period pads from two pence per pad (23p for a pack) to four pence per pad (42p for a pack). This means that any gains made with the abolition of the 5% VAT tampon tax have been wiped out.

The rising costs of period products will not only affect the ability of women, girls and people who menstruate to buy these essential items but will also mean that non-profit organisations will find it increasingly difficult to purchase the quantity of products they need to meet increasing demand.

This increase, coupled with a decrease in donations that such organisations would typically receive as people reprioritise their spending, could further hinder their ability to continue to provide support for those experiencing period poverty.

What are the implications of rising period poverty?

There is currently no consistent central government strategy or funding in place to address period poverty, despite claims that money would be available. In 2019, the then Minister for Women and Equalities, Penny Mordaunt, stated that the government would provide ‘£2 million funding through UK Aid Direct to for projects to help women and girls living in poverty to manage their periods with dignity’. Also promised was a further £250,000 of seed funding from the Government Equalities Office ‘to support the work of the [period poverty] taskforce’. It is still not known how or if this money has been spent.

With the pandemic and the cost of living crisis making the situation worse for people experiencing period poverty, as well as for organisations providing support for these individuals, there is a clear need for the UK government to honour its pledge to ‘end period poverty by 2030’. Until then, the cost of living crisis is likely to have a disproportionate effect on women, girls and people who menstruate from lower-income households.

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Author: Gemma Williams
Photo by Ildar Abulkhanov from iStock
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