‘Period poverty’ is a term used to describe the experience of being unable to access period products and/or menstrual health education due to financial, political and cultural barriers.
By bringing public petitions, research and heartbreaking accounts of girls resorting to toilet roll because ‘mummy  has lost her job and is struggling to do food shopping’ to parliament, ‘period poverty’ campaigns, often supported by many charities, are succeeding in making period products more accessible and affordable.
This comes at an important time as research by Plan International UK shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the inaccessibility of period products for many girls and young women as closures of schools and public buildings have hindered government and community-led period product access schemes.
Waving goodbye to the ‘tampon tax’
On January 1st, 2021, the government finally fulfilled its promise to abolish ‘tampon tax’- the 5% rate of VAT previously charged on period products in the UK. Chancellor Rishi Sunak had announced in the March 2020 budget that, following the completion of Brexit, the government would ‘use its freedom from EU law’- which requires member states to charge a minimum 5% VAT on period products – to scrap the tax altogether.
Since 2015, £47 million of tax generated from period product sales has been allocated into a Tampon Tax Fund to be distributed to projects that improve the lives of disadvantaged women and children. The charity Women’s Resource Centre was pleased to see more specialist women’s organisations included in the 2020/21 recipient list as it has campaigned tirelessly ‘with support from across [the women’s charity] sector and beyond’ against the fund being used for larger ‘generic organisations’. The Treasury’s announcement released on New Year’s Day states that ‘the Tampon Tax Fund will continue to provide funding’, but provided little further detail.
Laura Coryton, a tampon tax activist whose Stop Taxing Periods petition gained momentum in 2016 with over 300,000 signatures and charity backing worldwide, is excited to see the end of the ‘sexist policy’. However, she is also concerned that the government is using the issue ‘as a political football within the Brexit conversation’, and she points out that products such as reusable period underwear will remain taxed, meaning there is more campaigning to be done.
Scotland first in the world to introduce free universal access to period products
On 24th November 2020, 121 Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) unanimously passed the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill following a four-year campaign led by the MSP for Central Scotland, Monica Lennon. The new law makes it a legal duty for local authorities to ensure period products are made obtainable free of charge in their area to ‘all persons who need to use them’.
Scotland has become the first country in the world to place a duty on its government to set up a country-wide wide scheme that will ensure period products are made available free of charge on a universal basis. Scottish Ministers will be able to request that other ‘specified public bodies’ take part in the scheme and the new law also protects the provision of free period products in school, college and university toilets.
The Scottish government estimates the scheme will cost £24 million a year to implement‘- over two and a half times the cost estimated by Lennon in the bill’s financial memorandum -, but with variations in uptake expected, the true cost and practicalities will become clear as the scheme is implemented in the coming year.
Period products made freely available in Northern Ireland schools
A week before Christmas, Northern Ireland’s Education Minister, Peter Weir, announced that period products will be ‘made freely available’ in primary and secondary schools across Northern Ireland from September 2021.
The Northern Ireland Executive approved Weir’s proposal to fund a three-year pilot scheme, expected to cost £2.6 million, that will make free period products available to all pupils who menstruate and will be supported with curriculum materials to help ‘tackle the lack of education and the stigma around periods’.
The implementation of this scheme will bring Northern Ireland into line with England, Wales and Scotland, which already have budgets and schemes in place to provide free period products to school pupils thanks to collaborative campaigns by charities and non-profit groups such as The Red Box Project and Free Periods.
The success of the proposal would not have been possible without the volunteer-led group Homeless Period Belfast and its Menstruation Matters! petition which called on Weir to take action. The petition was presented by Chris Lyttle to the Northern Ireland Assembly on behalf of 5,000 signatories.
Here, Lyttle detailed the findings of a survey that Homeless Period Belfast conducted with 200 schoolgirls in Northern Ireland which showed that a lack of access to period products negatively impacted schoolgirl’s concentration, attendance and mental health.
The fight against ‘period poverty’ can’t be separated from poverty itself
Not being able to afford period products is a (gendered) symptom of poverty, caused by inequalities in the make-up of our society. Governments in the UK and across the world must take accountability for addressing the root causes of economic disadvantage and its impacts on people’s experiences of menstruation.
While there’s much more work to be done, the achievements of campaigners in civil society and the charity sector represent huge steps towards removing barriers to universal access to period products. A hallmark of these campaigns has been honest and unforgiving conversations about the impacts of poverty on people’s experiences of menstruation – a topic which has long been associated with shame and embarrassment – a significant achievement in its own right.