- Sorcha Tipping
The forgotten crisis: period poverty and the cost of living
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Period poverty management and education, has worsened in the current economic climate with the cost-of-living crisis. Increased production costs have led to higher prices in shops, placing more pressure on non-profits working against period poverty to provide for those seeking their help. Government measures to combat the issue have been largely ineffective, leaving people who menstruate to face continued challenges physically and emotionally. They are not receiving nearly enough attention in the current economic climate, and there is still so much more to be done.
Government measures to combat period poverty have varied across the UK, with some enacting more effective change than others. England and Northern Ireland have similarly introduced provisions to make free products available to primary and secondary school students, but such schemes are not compulsory, and also do nothing to help older people struggling with period poverty. Additionally, the Welsh Assembly has promised £3.1 million to help tackle period poverty, but many feel this provision is not enough to keep young people who menstruate in education. In January 2021, the UK government moved towards making products more affordable with the abolition of the ‘tampon tax’, a 5% VAT on period products, which were previously considered luxury or non-essential items. However, the removal of the 5% VAT made little in the way of noticeable change, as the average price of a pack of tampons actually increased between December 2020 and January 2021, while some reusable products also still remain taxed at 17.5%.
Although the abolition of the tampon tax was a step towards gender equality within the tax system, it clearly did not go far enough to help those struggling to afford period products. In January 2021, Scotland introduced the most impactful measure yet to combat period poverty: the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill made it compulsory for local authorities and education providers, to provide free period products. A similar introduction of free period products across the whole of the UK would considerably improve the lives of those struggling to afford sanitary products.
'In the UK currently, 14.5 million people are living in poverty. Within this climate, menstruating people face the harrowing costs of an average of £4,800 on period products in a lifetime, an expense that is only rising as inflation rates soar. For many people living in poverty, soaring prices can mean the difference between a meal and a pack of pads. In 2023 this is a decision that no one should have to be making. Period Poverty exists because of an array of reasons, but it fundamentally comes down to a failure by people in positions of power to take women’s health seriously. The demand for grassroot organisations and campaigners is only going to grow throughout the current cost of living crisis, as need increases, and pressure on the government to enact further changes should grow with it.' - Period Poverty University of Edinburgh
The government has not yet announced any measures specific to the cost of living crisis as prices rise and more people struggle to purchase essential items like period products. Bloody Good Period, a hygiene bank set up in 2016, reported an increase of 78% in demand for period products in the first three months of 2022. It is both harder for people to afford these products for themselves, and for non-profit organisations (referred to as ‘hygiene banks’) to buy them for people seeking their help amidst a reduction in donations as people reconsider their spending. Despite the introduction of free sanitary products, 137,000 children have missed school due to a lack of access to period products. This points to significant flaws in government schemes, since the rest of the UK does not have to opt in to provide products for students. Moreover, when they do, products often aren’t distributed in conveniently accessible ways which also respects their dignity. A third of students had to ask teachers for products, and 54% said they felt uncomfortable doing so, whilst 30% were too embarrassed. Period poverty also worsened in the pandemic, with panic buying and the closure public places like schools placing pressure on hygiene banks and reducing access to products. Moreover, those who were shielding did not receive sanitary products in care packages of ‘essential’ items, leaving many to struggle on their own.
The UK has had varying degrees of success in tackling period poverty. In being the first nation to do so, Scotland has made great progress in ensuring people who menstruate have access to free sanitary products. However, England and Northern Ireland’s measures exclude older, low-income people who do not have access to products from schools, (and even within schools, some young people are still struggling to access products in a dignified and easy way). Wales has also struggled to introduce effective measures, with many people still struggling to afford products every day. A solution to this would be to introduce free period products for everyone, not just school children, across the UK. The cost-of-living crisis presents countless low-income people with physical and emotional challenges, as well as educational challenges for people still in school.
When considering period products were still taxed at 5% up until last year, were not freely available in schools or public places, and weren’t seen as ‘essential’ items, it is concerning that this issue does not seem to be considered a priority in one of the worst economic climates the UK has experienced. Providing free sanitary products across the UK would eliminate the struggle of prioritising essential spending and ensures children are kept in school. No one should have to choose between paying for heating or period products, and the fact this is still an issue in the UK shows women’s issues and menstruation are not serious priorities for the government.