Period poverty is an issue which affects thousands of women across the UK. Currently, not enough is being done by the UK Government to improve the accessibility to sanitary products for women in England. Public awareness regarding the subject of period poverty continues to be high, due to the expansion of the Scottish Government scheme in 2019 and the recent introduction of the Period Products Bill in the Scottish Parliament in 2020.1 The increased public and political interest has since created a window of opportunity to introduce a similar policy in England.

What is Period Poverty?

Menstrual health management, otherwise known as ‘period poverty’, can be defined as being unable to access sanitary products or menstrual education as a result of economic constraints.2 On average, women will spend £4,800 on period products throughout their lifetime, with one packet of period products costing, on average, £2.37.3 A report conducted by Plan International UK, investigating women and girls’ experiences of menstruation within the UK, identified the fundamental issues concerning period poverty.4 The main concerns included the cost of sanitary products and the shame and stigma attached to this issue. These are factors which will both need addressed to tackle this issue effectively.

Recent studies have revealed that 27% of women and girls have missed work or school as a result of period poverty.5 Experiences of period poverty have also been recorded as having a damaging effect on women’s wellbeing, increasing the chances of depression and anxiety due to the element of shame attached to period poverty.6 The effects that this issue is having on women’s mental health, education, income and absence rates undoubtedly make this issue significant in today’s society. Increased media attention has also resulted in a growing public interest on this topic.7 It should, therefore, be placed high on the political agenda.

Current Scheme

In 2018, The Scottish Government were the first Government in the world to create a policy aimed at period poverty.8 The £5.2 million scheme provided free access to sanitary products across all schools, colleges and universities.9 To implement the policy, the Scottish Government worked in collaboration with the organisation PHS Group to ensure products were distributed effectively.10 The programme has since been adopted by the UK Government, who have pledged £20 million to supply free period products to all students throughout England, awarding PHS Group the contract to execute the policy.1112

Due to the positive response received following the introduction of the initial policy,13 the Scottish Government expanded the programme with an additional investment of £4 million. The further funding provided products in community settings through universally accessible buildings such as libraries, community centres and pharmacies.14 As of February 2020, the Scottish Government voted in favour of the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill. The legislation will make Scotland the first country in the world to provide sanitary products for free for individuals who require them.15 Further extending the provisions currently available and continuing to ensure Scotland’s world-leading stance and commitment in tackling period poverty.

Gaps in Policy

The UK Government have not committed to an extension of the initial policy in England.16 The existing policy, although attempting to reduce period poverty, clearly requires further action. The current policy has failed to address or recognise that period poverty does not only exist to women and girls in education. The problem of access for women who are not in education or the issue of school and university holidays have failed to be acknowledged.

A critical gap in current policy, therefore, remains which needs to be addressed. Sanitary products need to be accessible all year for women and girls who need them and be available in buildings all women can access. The failure by the UK Government to adopt a more inclusive scheme in England is forcing women to rely on food banks and charities for these essential products (Freedom4Girls, 2019) further excluding and disadvantaging groups of vulnerable women in society.17

Policy Solutions

Option 1 – Adopting a card-based system

The introduction of a scheme comparable to the C-card service. The C-card is a free, confidential card system available in Edinburgh and the Lothians which allows individual access to free condoms.18 Individuals can apply for a C-card through the NHS, disclosing minimal personal information. Once accepted, individuals are provided with a card which can be produced at selected distribution locations such as medical centres, pharmacies or clinics, allowing the cardholder access to free condoms when required.19

The initiative would, however, contain an element of embarrassment, as women would have to disclose they are unable to afford period products. Requiring individuals to sign up and provide proof of identity is likely to act as a potential barrier to women accessing products (EGender, 2017).20 Due to the stigma attached, this option would fail to address the topic of shame, which was highlighted as one of the central issues relating to period poverty and ultimately contributing to the negative impacts on women’s and girls’ wellbeing.21

Option 2 – Expand the current scheme

Implementing an extension of the scheme to include public buildings in England would be a feasible solution. The UK Government have already demonstrated similar methods as the Scottish Government by the policy transfer of the original Scottish Government scheme.22 The further distribution of products in publicly accessible buildings will ensure the policy is more inclusive and would not be a drastic change from what the UK Government have already applied in England.

The cost of this expansion will be considerable, the estimated cost of delivering products universally throughout Scotland in line with the Period Products Bill is currently estimated to cost £24 million.23 However, it is also significant to note that contraceptives are freely accessible in the UK, with England spending £246.1 million per year on these products.24 The expansion of the current scheme would make period products available universally, removing ambiguity and the opportunity for different levels of access in different locations. This option would also remove the element of shame attached as individuals would not have to reach out for help but rather access these products discreetly when required.25

Recommendation – Option 2

Based on the evidence and policy options provided, the most feasible solution would be to implement Option 2, which would expand the current scheme. The policy option presented is clear and straightforward, leaving little room for misunderstanding if applied, improving the chances of successful policy implementation. Option 2 will ensure free products are available when required to those who need them and also eliminate the main issues of cost and stigma, highlighted by the Plan International UK report.26 Products will be obtainable in community buildings and discretely accessed by women and girls when necessary, ensuring continuous access throughout the year.

The UK Government are already working in collaboration with the PHS Group, who are currently supplying sanitary products in schools throughout England and Scotland. Therefore, the UK Government are in contact with an organisation who will have experience in dealing with the technicalities and logistics of supplying products. The expansion would be a more achievable solution when compared to the introduction of the C-card scheme. The C-card programme would have the potential to be implemented differently across locations in England. It will also hold an element of shame for the individuals who register for the service.

While the proposed scheme could be critiqued as being expensive due to the need for extra funding, this does not outweigh the human costs of period poverty for women and girls’ wellbeing, education, income and health. When compared to the amount of annual public spending of £246.1 million on contraceptives in England, the cost of implementing the suggested scheme would be considerably less.27 If the policy is successfully extended, this will make sure the scheme is addressing the current gaps in policy and ensure the implementation of a programme which will improve the accessibility and overall health of women.28

Leanne McVey is currently studying a Masters degree in Public Policy at the University of Stirling. Research interests include social inequalities and feminist issues.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. BBC News, 2020. Period poverty: MSPs back plans for free sanitary products. [Online]
    Available at: Period poverty: MSPs back plans for free sanitary products
    [Accessed 26 February 2020].
  2. BBC News, 2019. Free sanitary products scheme expands in Scotland. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-46904775
    [Accessed 14 February 2020].
  3. Bloody Good Period, 2020. Bloody Good Period; Homepage. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.bloodygoodperiod.com/
    [Accessed 10 February 2020].
  4. Plan International UK, 2018. Break The Barriers: Girl’s Experiences of Menstruation in the UK , London: Plan International UK.
  5. Compassion UK, 2019. Period Poverty: Tackling the Menstruation Taboo. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.compassionuk.org/blogs/period-poverty/
    [Accessed 12 February 2020].
  6. Elsworthy, E., 2018. Women who experience period poverty more likely to suffer anxiety or depression, study claims. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/period-poverty-anxiety-depression-study-women-mental-health-sanitary-products-a8452581.html
    [Accessed 12 February 2020].
  7. The Period Poverty Project, 2019. About the Project. [Online]
    Available at: https://theperiodpovertyproject.com/about-the-project/
    [Accessed 19 February 2020].
  8. SNP, 2019. How are the SNP tackling ‘period poverty’?. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.snp.org/policies/pb-how-are-the-snp-tackling-period-poverty/
    [Accessed 12 February 2020].
  9. Nadia, K., 2018. Scotland to offer free sanitary products to all students in world first. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/aug/24/scotland-to-offer-free-sanitary-products-to-all-students-in-world-first
    [Accessed 21 February 2020].
  10. PHS Group, 2019. Period equality for all. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.phs.co.uk/about-phs/expertise-news/period-equality-for-all/
    [Accessed 17 February 2020].
  11. Richard, A., 2020. Free period products to be available in schools and colleges in England. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jan/18/free-period-products-to-be-available-in-schools-and-colleges-in-england
    [Accessed 21 Feburary 2020].
  12. PHS Group, 2019. Period equality for all. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.phs.co.uk/about-phs/expertise-news/period-equality-for-all/
    [Accessed 17 February 2020].
  13. BBC News, 2019. Free sanitary products scheme expands in Scotland. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-46904775
    [Accessed 14 February 2020].
  14. ibid
  15. BBC News, 2020. Period poverty: MSPs back plans for free sanitary products. [Online]
    Available at: Period poverty: MSPs back plans for free sanitary products
    [Accessed 26 February 2020].
  16. Mordaunt, P., 2019. Update on the Government’s response on Period Poverty. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2019-04-24/HCWS1522/
    [Accessed 24 February 2020].
  17. Freedom4Girls, 2019. Provision of period products. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.freedom4girls.co.uk/period-products/
    [Accessed 12 February 2020].
  18. NHS Lothian, 2020. C-card: About us. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.ccard.org.uk/
    [Accessed 20 February 2020].
  19. ibid
  20. EGender, 2017. Engender submission of evidence to the Scottish Parliament Local Government and Communities Committee Call for Evidence on the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, s.l.: EGender.
  21. Plan International UK, 2018. Break The Barriers: Girl’s Experiences of Menstruation in the UK , London: Plan International UK.
  22. Mordaunt, P., 2019. Update on the Government’s response on Period Poverty. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2019-04-24/HCWS1522/
    [Accessed 24 February 2020].
  23. BBC News, 2019. Free sanitary products scheme expands in Scotland. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-46904775
    [Accessed 14 February 2020].
  24. Public Health England , 2018. Contraception: Economic Analysis Estimation of the Return on Investment (ROI) for publicly funded contraception in England, London: Public Health England.
  25. Plan International UK, 2018. Break The Barriers: Girl’s Experiences of Menstruation in the UK , London: Plan International UK.
  26. Plan International UK, 2018. Break The Barriers: Girl’s Experiences of Menstruation in the UK , London: Plan International UK.
  27. Public Health England , 2018. Contraception: Economic Analysis Estimation of the Return on Investment (ROI) for publicly funded contraception in England, London: Public Health England.
  28. Other works referenced include:

    Plan International UK, 2017. Plan Internationals UK’s research on period poverty and stigma. [Online]
    Available at: https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/plan-international-uks-research-on-period-poverty-and-stigma
    [Accessed 10 February 2020].

    Seely, A., 2019. VAT on sanitary protection. [Online]
    Available at: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN01128
    [Accessed 12 February 2020].

    The Independent , 2020. Period Poverty: Scotland makes a step closer to making sanitary products free for all. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/period-poverty-scotland-free-tampon-sanitary-pad-bill-vote-holyrood-a9356801.html
    [Accessed 26 February 2020].

    Tull, K., 2019. Period poverty impact on the economic empowerment of women , Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

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