Put a Sock In It

British girls skip school because they can’t access sanitary products

Periods are an expensive luxury. The average woman will spend £20,000 on her periods over a lifetime, and the tampons or towels she purchases are still, for the time being at least, taxed as “luxury goods”, despite the fact that other reproductive health items, such as condoms, are doled out free of charge. It makes sense, then, that some of the UK’s poorest girls just can’t afford to buy these products month after month- and it’s having a far-reaching impact on their education.

Teachers in Leeds recently contacted the charity Freedom4girls, after realising that a significant number of students were reliant on their teachers for tampons and pads, or even skipped school on a monthly basis because of their period. Freedom4girls is a UK based charity which usually provides essential sanitary items to schoolgirls in Kenya, so their periods don’t hinder their school attendance. Now, however, the charity has set its sights on addressing similar problems in the UK. Freedom4girls’ founder, Tina Leslie, succinctly summed up the situation when she told The Independent that “nobody thinks it’s happening here, but it is happening here”. Leslie has since launched an online crowdfunding page with the aim of raising money to research the extent of this problem in the UK, and provide support for girls who are skipping school because they can’t afford essential sanitary products. This hidden problem was also noticed by PC Sara Barry, the Safer Schools Officer for West Yorkshire Police, who subsequently opened up discussions with students in an attempt to reveal the root of the difficulty. She discovered that for girls from low-income families, for whom even affording food could be a challenge, sanitary items were low on the family’s list of priorities. Some girls even mentioned avoiding asking their parents for tampons or pads because they were so conscious of the cost. Many were forced to use make-shift solutions, such as taping toilet roll or socks to their underwear.

The number of girls skipping school due to their periods hasn’t come to the public’s attention before now partly because of the nature of absenteeism figures. These only record the percentage of students who are absent each day, without taking into account wider patterns- this is why Tina Leslie believes that extensive, university-backed research into the issue is so vital. Another reason for the lack of attention drawn to this travesty, though, is the fact that speaking about periods is still frustratingly taboo. Even in my own experience with adult colleagues, mentioning that I was popping out to get tampons was met with shock, blushes, and a refusal to meet my eye for hours afterwards- despite the fact that over half of human beings will experience menstruation at some point in their lives. Discussing your period as a schoolgirl, relatively new to the monthly fiasco, can be even more embarrassing. The taboo still placed on menstruation by our culture seems to have prevented the girls affected from speaking out about the reason behind their monthly absence from school. Worryingly, similar problems are affecting schoolgirls in New Zealand. The children’s charity, KidsCan, distributed sanitary items to over 500 schools after discovering that economically disadvantaged girls were skipping class during their periods.

It’s almost unbelievable that in these rich, “developed” countries, girls’ education is being jeopardised because they lack access to basic hygiene necessities. The high cost of tampons and pads continues to exacerbate the gender pay-gap, putting the brakes on women gaining equal economic power. This revelation has, essentially, proven that even in the UK, in 2017, girls and boys do not have equal access to education. The amount of school missed can, for some girls, add up to an astonishing 20%, which is likely to affect their academic performance. This could lead to them being less likely to enter higher education, hence higher paid occupations, and, ultimately, continue a vicious cycle of poverty.

One obvious solution would be for the UK government to subsidise the cost of, or ideally, provide sanitary products for free. It seems bizarre that it’s already possible to get hold of free contraceptives through the NHS, yet items which are equally essential are prohibitively expensive for many women and girls. This discrepancy seems to send the message that women’s reproductive health is only important enough to state fund when it has the potential to affect men’s. Perhaps the UK could take advice from across the pond- a recent US scheme implemented last September saw New York universities and public schools providing free sanitary products in bathrooms, in a move to improve girls’ attendance.

Hopefully these appalling revelations will encourage similar schemes to go ahead on this side of the Atlantic. In the meantime, more research needs to be conducted to ascertain the extent of the problem. The girls struggling in North Yorkshire, Freedom4girls’ Tina Leslie suggests, are just “the tip of the iceberg”.    

[Bethany Garner]

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