From Period Poverty to Menstrual Cups


Other Themes

Menstrual Hygiene

Way back in the 1980’s I wrote to my then local MP Sir Archie Hamilton to ask why tampons were taxed as a luxury item when it was blatantly obvious to the 11-year-old me that this was unfair and that they were not a luxury but a necessity and that this was, therefore, a tax on girls and women.  I duly received my hand signed reply, on beautifully thick, House of Commons headed notepaper thanking me for taking an interest in this very important issue.  No remedies were suggested and over 3 decades later we are still talking about this ‘tampon tax’.  The BBC even has a handy tampon tax calculator that you can use to work out how much you have spent on sanitary products.  So far, according to the calculator I have spent about £1500 with just under £150 of VAT.

The UK government currently charges VAT of 5% on period products. This reduced rate was implemented in 2001, by the then Labour government, following a campaign and debates in parliament.  In 2015 the then Chancellor George Osbourne announced that, until EU legislation was changed to allow 0% rates, any VAT collected from period products would be donated to ‘women’s health and support charities’.

Whilst this might be regarded as progress, it fails to address wider issues of inequality around the tampon tax, namely, period poverty.  Acting on information from local schools, a report by a charity called Freedom4Girls last year found that girls from low-income families in the UK were routinely missing school during their periods because they were unable to afford sanitary protection.    Following this, in December last year, there was a protest march and rally in London organised by Amika George who founded the #FreePeriods campaign to try and get the government to provide free sanitary products in schools for girls in receipt of free school meals. This campaign was followed by a stream of media reports on schools and teachers who are routinely providing both food and basic hygiene and sanitary products for pupils whose families cannot afford them.  What is more, a survey carried out by the GMB Union this summer found that more than half of school staff are paying out of their own pockets to provide these basic supplies for their students.  One of the most recent voices to join the campaign is Girlguiding organisation which is actively campaigning to end period stigma and period poverty.

Amike George, from the #freeperiods campaign, argues that the problem of period poverty is exacerbated by the continued stigma around menstruation.  Not only are girls having to deal with the lack of essential sanitary products, but they are also having to deal with the consequences of this lack and the fear of being seen to bleed in public.  This stigma was, again, highlighted only last week in relation to toilet policies in classrooms that resulted in an 11-year-old girl sitting in ‘blood-soaked clothes’ because she didn’t have a toilet pass and so wasn’t allowed to leave the classroom during lesson time.  Not only does this fail to allow for the needs of girls during menstruation, which it should be remembered, is not a medical issue but a routine natural event that does not (usually) require medical intervention, but poverty also becomes an issue when toilet passes are only issued with a Doctors certificate (which can cost £15 in administration fee’s from the local GP).

So how is period poverty being addressed?

The government stated that Osbourne’s plan to donate the VAT from period products to women’s ‘support and health’ groups would tackle period poverty but, as the examples identified above demonstrate, it looks as if this has failed. Three years on from this initiative and the problem is still with us and appears, if anything, to be increasing rather than decreasing.

Another suggestion is that menstrual cups and reusable alternatives to traditional sanitary towels and tampons are entering the market in increasing numbers and may reduce the costs in the longer term.  There was an article on menstrual cups and plastic free alternative sanitary products on the BBC news this week, stating that these products are becoming more popular in the UK and also in the US and Australia.  Well-known high-street stores are now selling menstrual cups and sales have been growing rapidly over the past decade.  The BBC article linked menstrual cups and other reusable sanitary products with coverage of period poverty suggesting that “It’s also thought that women are turning to reusable products in order to save money”.  When reasons for an uptake in interest were explored, however, they focused on environmental issues and plastic pollution.  This is clearly important and needs to be addressed but no evidence was made for a link between interest in saving money and switching to reusable period products.  In fact, the initial outlay costs of reusable products are such that those with limited resources are unable to afford them and so would be unable to access the long-term cost savings that are promised.  A failure to frame any discussion of these products in terms of the economics of the situation means that issues of period poverty continue to be backgrounded.

Other schemes have been started to provide complimentary sanitary products in women’s toilets.  In New York City schools are routinely providing free sanitary products now, and increasingly they can be found in the toilets of small cafes and restaurants around the UK.   A campaign ‘On the Ball’ was launched by three female football fans when they found that not all toilets at the stadiums they visited had sanitary bins and that the machines for products, if available, required exact change.   In a bid to break down taboos in a space which remains male orientated despite over 1 in 4 supporters of premier league clubs being female, they campaigned to get UK football grounds to provide free sanitary products.  To date, they have recruited 29 stadiums including those of three premier league teams.  The photo attached to this blog is from my last visit to Brighton’s ground.

These campaigns are good, they have made a genuine difference.  But these measures, however welcome, cannot solve the problem in the longer term.  Period poverty exists because sanitary products are a multi-million-pound business (estimated to be worth £265.8m in 2017).  But more fundamentally period poverty exists because poverty exists.  Women don’t have enough money to buy sanitary towels and tampons because they are not paid enough, because the living wage is not a liveable wage, because benefits are not survivable on, and because the evidence is clear that the government’s ideological austerity programme disproportionately affects women.   The only way to eradicate period poverty in the longer term is to tackle poverty.  In the fifth richest country in the world in terms of total wealth, this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable or unreachable aim.

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