Period poverty in the UK: Bloody Big Problem
Period poverty affects one in 10 young women, often leaving girls feeling they have no option but to miss school every month. The Red Box Project offers hope.
“I used to pack my pants out with loo roll,” says teenager Charlotte (who requested that we don’t publish her full name). “By the time I got home from school I’d be really raw and sore. My mum only gave us one sanitary towel a day. I spent my evenings washing out pants and my days worrying that I’d leaked through to my school skirt. Once my sister had to use an old tampon she’d found at gran’s ... she unraveled it to make herself a pad.”
This is the reality of period poverty in Britain. Some girls and women are unable to afford sanitary protection due to lack of funds. The charity Freedom4Girls estimates that it affects more than 300 million worldwide. However, period poverty doesn’t just have an impact on women and girls in developing nations. A recent study by Plan International showed it can have dire consequences for one in 10 girls here, too. Thousands of girls in the UK miss school every month.
Last year, teacher Anna Miles was shocked to read about a school in Leeds that had contacted Freedom4Girls for help. The charity provides sanitary protection to girls in Kenya. Yet this school was asking whether they could also help girls in Yorkshire, as it knew of at least three pupils who were missing school every single month. And the reason? Period poverty.
Together with three friends – Liesl Rose, Jo Willoughby and Clegg Bamber – Anna did some research. The Leeds case was the tip of the iceberg. Every single month young women are creating makeshift pads out of old T-shirts and newspaper. There was even a report of one girl taping a tennis ball to her pants. Crucially, girls who are unable to afford sanitary protection are falling behind in their studies. This is because they opt to stay at home rather than risk openly bleeding in a public place.
“The impact is disastrous,” says Anna. “Missed days off school mean gaps in learning. A young woman’s full potential is therefore not being reached. We were astonished that this was happening all over the country, and in our home town of Portsmouth, too. We decided that we wanted to provide support to any young woman who needed access to free sanitary wear.”
The group was also worried about how the issue was affecting girls’ self-esteem. “Period poverty has a long-term effect on confidence. It is this that really saddened and motivated us,” explains Red Box Project team member and holistic therapist Liesl. This is backed up by survey findings by sanitary product brand Always. They found 60% of those who’d experienced period poverty said they’d experienced bullying. They had then gone on to suffer long-term low self-confidence and depression.
Starting a movement
Anna and her pals decided to tackle the problem. They hit upon the idea of creating boxes they could fill with essential sanitary protection items and place them where girls could easily access them for free. Places such as schools, colleges and youth centres. All products would be donated, and the scheme run by volunteers. No fuss, no stigma, no cost to the girls who needed help.
Some distinctive branding was designed and Anna set up a Facebook page. Very quickly they were inundated. “We heard stories from women who had been through the same hardships. Using socks and tissue as sanitary towels, missing school and feeling ashamed to ask for help. Many agreed to work with us,” explains Anna. The Red Box Project was born.
“We launched with eight boxes in schools in the Portsmouth area last July,” says Anna. “By February 2018, this increased to 89 boxes. Now we have 626 boxes placed in schools up and down the country and it grows by the week. ”
Tina Leslie, founder of Freedom4Girls, isn’t surprised. She says the increase in period poverty has escalated as a direct result of child poverty and the rise in the number of people on zero-hours contracts. “We’re seeing a huge rise in the number of people using food banks in this country. And it’s the working poor who are affected. If you have 50p left at the end of the week, do you buy sanitary pads or a loaf of bread?”
Flooded with kindness
Apart from the graft of the founders (who all work as volunteers), the Red Box Project is reliant on four key elements:
The kindness of people who donate products,
Volunteer coordinators who fill the boxes and distribute them,
Teachers who ensure girls can access the products without embarrassment,
The use of digital media to spread the word.
It’s a system that works. “Earlier this year, I attended an event to mark International Women’s Day aimed at young women,” says Liesl. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be mobbed by girls telling us that they had one of our boxes in school. One said: ‘OMG, Miss, that box well saved my life!!’”. With 121 boxes in London schools alone, the scheme has also got the thumbs-up from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
However, it’s not just education, dignity and mental health at stake. Girls admit to dangerous practices, such as using tampons for far longer than recommended. The Scottish government is trialling free sanitary products for low-income families and £1m has been pledged in Wales. In England, the government is spending money on outreach programmes in selected areas. A Department for Education statement also suggests schools use the pupil premium payment to buy pads.
From her experiences in a south London school, former teacher and Red Box Project volunteer Becky Lopez feels this isn’t enough: “Child poverty is growing, and this, coupled with council budgets being slashed, means period poverty is a growing issue.”
“Girls haven’t got access to the basic necessities to go about their school day. Other basic needs are provided for: school meals and toilet rolls. Yet we’re saying to girls that boys can come to school and fully participate, but girls, if you can’t afford sanitary products, your education isn’t worth that to us,” she told the BBC.
Challenging the taboo
Charlotte’s cheeks burn when she talks about her school days. “No girl should have to go through what my sister and I did,” she says. “I feel very strongly that sanitary protection should be available in schools for those who need it. But I’d rather my real name wasn’t used. It’s still a taboo; a dirty secret.”
The Red Box Project team know there are many Charlottes up and down the country. “Ultimately, it is not okay for young women to be prevented from accessing their education because they have their period,” says Anna. “Our stance will always be to ensure that no young woman misses out on their education because they have their period. Dignity matters. Kindness matters. We will not stop until every young woman has access to free sanitary wear.”