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Periods, Poverty and Pandemics

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

How Coronavirus has Impacted Access to Menstrual Products

By Aisha Mahal

Image via Oxfam Canada.

Periods did not simply cease to exist when the Coronavirus pandemic began to escalate. Yet, the struggles those who menstruate face have been neglected in many governments’ responses. The current COVID-19 crisis has forced everyone to give up some degree of control over their plans, future and lives–however, vulnerable women and those who menstruate are also at risk of losing control of their bodies.

What is period poverty?

Period poverty arises due to three inter-linking issues: the ‘toxic trio’ of stigma, inaccessibility of products, and lack of education.

The first is period stigma and shame. In the UK, 48% of girls feel embarrassed by their period.

Next are the high cost and inaccessibility of many period products, with 27% of girls in the UK overusing a sanitary product because they could not afford a fresh one.

The third element is the harmful lack of education around periods, for example, a quarter of UK girls did not know what to do when they first got their period.

Image via Plan UK.

If these are the statistics for the UK–often viewed as a progressive nation with a good education system–imagine the period poverty plaguing girls in other nations around the globe.

How has the coronavirus worsened the situation in the UK?

In the UK, prior to the pandemic, one in ten girls were unable to afford period products. Recent research by Plan International UK has found that this figure has tripled under Coronavirus lockdown rules, leaving nearly a third of young girls in the UK unable to afford these basic necessities.

Like many governments across the globe, the UK government has arguably neglected women and girls in its coronavirus response. Irise International, one of the charities at the forefront of this issue, highlights how even the most basic, gender-specific needs, like access to menstrual products and reproductive health services, have been overlooked or de-prioritized.

For many women and girls, economic strains resulting from the pandemic have forced them into period poverty for the very first time. Many charities, drop-in centers, and food banks that usually provide free period products are now closed. Government advice against using public transport has left many women unable to travel to the shops for products. Most “donation stations” in supermarkets, pharmacies, and workplaces have closed over hygiene concerns.

Alongside these problems with accessing period products come price hikes. When toilet rolls were flying off the shelves at the start of lockdown, no one pointed out the fact that period products were also being stockpiled by those who could afford to do so. This has arguably driven up the price of period products, leaving many unable to afford even the cheapest of products.

These are just a handful of the barriers women across the UK are facing as a result of the pandemic and the UK government’s failure to consider us in their response.

Unable to access or afford period products, hundreds of thousands of women have had to resort to using toilet roll, towels and old clothes –– opening them up to an increased risk of infections, as well as a complete loss of dignity.

Freedom4Girls, one of several UK charities trying to address period poverty, has given out 4,500 packs of emergency period products in the last two months. Normally, they hand out 500 packs a month. Meanwhile, Bloody Good Period has distributed 20,000 emergency period packs in the three months since lockdown began. This equates to more than 200,000 individual products. They usually only hand out 5,000 packs per month.

The presence of charities such as these is a huge relief to the thousands who cannot afford or access period products. However, it should not be up to charities to fill this gap. Indeed, this gap should not exist in the first place.

Period poverty is evolving into a human rights crisis across the globe, worsened by the pandemic. Coronavirus and government failures to take into account people who menstruate is putting their fundamental dignity and right to cleanliness at risk. Many will be left feeling isolated, powerless and unclean when they cannot access period products.

Amika George, from Free Periods, explains how inability in accessing period products can have "a long-lasting impact on the trajectory of a girl's life." This can include holding them back in their education and placing them on an unequal playing field with their male counterparts. From taking part in sports, to passing exams, to securing their first job, period poverty impacts more than just a woman's one week of bleeding. It can destroy their confidence and self-worth.

More importantly, it is the 'hidden vulnerable' in society who we must be most worried about–the refugees, communities with English as a second language, the homeless, asylum-seekers, and those who are newly unemployed as a result of the pandemic.

What needs to change?

Periods need to be normalized and mainstreamed so that they can no longer be forgotten and ignored, especially in disaster responses. The virus has shown us that when we ask someone if they need food, we also need to be asking them if they need period products.

Governments across the globe need to be doing more to end period poverty. This should not be the responsibility of charities. Post-Coronavirus we need to move towards a world where it is the norm to see free pads and tampons readily available.

In the words of Latoya Ramjit, "We can't control our bodies. This is a need–it is not a want."

How can you help?

If you would like to contribute towards the Coronavirus Emergency Responses run by various period poverty charities, please donate your money, spare period products or your time.

Below are some UK and international charities to donate towards who are raising awareness of period poverty and helping those most in need:

Irise International: A UK-based charity whose Coronavirus Emergency Response is providing invaluable support (period products as well as advice for vulnerable women) to women in Sheffield and in Uganda.

Plan International: One of the leading girls’ rights charities globally, Plan’s Coronavirus Appeal supports vulnerable women and girls with food and hygiene packages.

Bloody Good Period: A charity advocating for an end to period poverty. Donations help them provide period products to as many people who need them–especially in a pandemic.

Freedom4Girls: Another UK-based charity fighting period poverty, one donation at a time.

Free Periods: A UK charity which successfully campaigned for free period products in schools. They are now continuing the fight against period poverty.

Written by writer Aisha Mahal.

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