COVID-19: we cannot ignore the needs of those who menstruate

Lota Bantić and Catherine Gabell of Brook’s Let’s Talk Period team explain why the current pandemic shouldn’t silence the conversation around period poverty, and why now more than ever we must fight to ensure period products are accessible.

As Free Periods so aptly put it, periods don’t stop for pandemics.

It’s an unprecedented time and many charities and organisations are concerned about how the necessary government measures (in particular the closure of schools for most children and young people) will impact the most vulnerable.

There have been ongoing discussions regarding access to free school meals and how to safeguard children in abusive home situations. But an aspect that many haven’t considered is access to period products.

As a member of the Government Equalities Office (GEO) period poverty task force, Brook is a key player in the fight for period equality. In January, we celebrated the launch of the DfE scheme to provide free period products in state-maintained schools and colleges across the country. The aim is to give pupils easy access to period products, to help break down stigmas and to ensure no young person’s education will be disrupted by their period.

During the current pandemic, schools and colleges can still order products through the scheme directly from the phs Group, so pupils still in schooling are able to access products. However, there are hundreds of thousands of young people that are no longer going to school, and their needs cannot be ignored.

Over the last year and a half we’ve been working on Brook’s Let’s Talk. Period project, delivering education and distributing free period products to young people who menstruate. In that time, we’ve spoken to a variety of young people – including those who are particularly vulnerable, such as young people living in supported housing, young mothers in mother and baby homes, youth offenders and young carers. In the final sessions we delivered before the pandemic-induced lockdown, these young people expressed concerns about running out of products. 

As a nation, we all appreciate that young people who normally rely on free school meals still need to eat. By the same token, we must recognise that people are still menstruating and still need products.

This is already a stressful time for young people, and this can be exacerbated further by lack of products. A number of the young people we work with have told us about the alternatives they used when they didn’t have products, such as toilet paper or cloth. Others report using a product for longer than is recommended: Plan International’s Break the Barriers report found that 27% of girls in the UK have overused a period product because they couldn’t afford a fresh one, which can cause health issues such as thrush. 

Unfortunately, period products are often the first thing to go if a family is struggling and now more than ever there are going to be more families struggling as the financial implications of this pandemic are felt nationwide.

We know that young people sometimes take on this financial burden themselves and don’t let their parents or carers know that they need period products, and instead suffer in silence.

This is in part due to the societal stigma attached to menstruation, which means that young people feel embarrassed to raise issues regarding their periods. Equally, parents may forego products for themselves in order to be able to provide them to their children. Young people receiving the period products they need relieves the burden on both children and parents.

We have come leaps and bounds in reducing shame and stigma around menstruation in recent years. This is a vital moment to continue the dialogue and shout louder about the need for access to period products.

The government must do more to ensure period products are accessible to those who need them. In leaving the conversation about period products off the table, we are allowing taboo around period rights to grow stronger. That’s why we are supporting the Free Periods Campaign, fighting to ensure the needs of those who menstruate are not forgotten.

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