Period inequality: a bloody shame

18 March 2022

How close are we to achieving period equality? Free products are now in UK schools, but periods are still taboo, especially among young people, and poverty still exists. Journalist Sarah Campbell takes a closer look.

I do think pads should be free because it’s a natural thing – every girl will end up having her period at some point in their life and not everyone can afford ’em.’ That’s the view of Sophie, 14, from Hull (Plan International UK, 2018).

She is not alone in this perception. More than a third of UK girls and young women aged 14 to 21 have struggled to afford period products since the pandemic began (Plan International UK, 2021), up from one in 10 pre-pandemic (Plan International UK, 2018). Among those who can afford products, almost a quarter struggled to get hold of them, mostly because of shortages in the shops (Plan International UK, 2020).

‘At a time when the financial fallout from Covid-19 has pushed families already at the sharp end of poverty into further financial turbulence, period poverty will continue to have a devastating impact on the trajectory of a young person’s life,’ wrote anti-poverty activist Amika George in March last year (George, 2021).

Thanks in part to Amika’s work with the Free Periods charity, which she set up while still at school, the UK now has schemes to provide free period products in schools. Scotland started in 2018, Wales in 2019, England in January 2020, and Northern Ireland launched a pilot in September last year. However, with schools closed for much of 2020, many young people were unable to rely on their usual source. It threw period poverty into even greater relief – and campaigners and charities found themselves busier than ever.

Toxic trio

‘Periods don’t stop in a pandemic,’ says Rachel Grocott, director of communications and public fundraising at Bloody Good Period (BGP). ‘We’ve just celebrated our fifth birthday –the intention was that we would be winding up. But thanks to the pandemic we are actually escalating what we’re doing because the need is so great. We don’t want to be around in another five years because we don’t believe we should have to do this.’

BGP focuses mostly on asylum seekers and refugees, but at one point during the pandemic it was supplying period products to NHS hospitals because staff were struggling to find supplies in the shops after working long shifts. The problem pervades all of society, and goes far beyond simply being able to pay for period products.

‘At Plan International UK, we consider period poverty to be made up of a toxic trio of issues – affordability, a lack of menstrual health education, and finally the shame, stigma and taboo that surrounds periods,’ says the charity’s health and wellbeing specialist Emma Thompson-O’Dowd.

This ‘toxic trio’ can be seen at work through the example of the introduction of free period products in England. Ninety-four per cent of secondary schools and 90% of post-16 organisations had made at least one order since the scheme began in January 2020. The equivalent figure for primary schools is lower, at 61% (Department for Education, 2021). But lockdown took children away from schools, and half of girls and young women aged 14 to 21 in the UK who had struggled to access period products during the pandemic couldn’t afford anything at all (Plan International UK, 2021).

‘We also know that girls are bullied and teased because of their periods,’ says Emma, citing a survey that found one in five girls and young women aged 14 to 21 had encountered this behaviour (Plan International UK, 2019). ‘If the shame and stigma isn’t addressed, then period product schemes are not necessarily accessed by those who need it.’

Finally, there’s the ‘period talk’. Emma says: ‘Girls tell us they’re taken out to a separate room, which adds to the sense of taboo. Girls say one solution they want is a single-sex approach where they can have that space, but also co-education that helps address the stigma and shame. We know from our research that boys and young men say they want to be educated on it as well.’

The even wider picture

While period poverty is a complex issue in itself, it is also a symptom of a greater malaise in terms of women’s rights and general poverty.

Nikki Pound, women’s equality policy officer at the TUC, speaks about it in no uncertain terms. ‘Period poverty reflects the poverty that exists in society. There’s a root problem here of poverty and living in a fundamentally sexist society that thinks women have to just get on with these things. It cannot be right that in the UK there are women and young girls who cannot afford period products. That is just unacceptable,’ she says.

‘There’s a root problem here of poverty and living in a fundamentally sexist society that thinks women have to just get on with these things’

Rachel agrees, pointing to the increase in demand during and after the pandemic. She says: ‘Covid-19 took inequalities and made them so much worse. But towards the end of last year we started seeing demand go up again. So we’re supporting more refugees, including those from Afghanistan. Also, the cost of living went up, furlough was cut, Universal Credit was cut. We started to get reports from partners across England and Wales. And more than 100 of them now say that things like in-work poverty [when a working household’s income is insufficient to meet their needs] is starting to go up again.’

A period-equal future?

As a cost of living crisis starts to bite and fuel prices soar, the poverty landscape in general looks bleak. But there is cause for optimism when it comes to tackling period poverty and working towards period equality, which Emma defines as ‘the ability to thrive in life, regardless of whether you're having your period or not’. In 2020, Scotland was the first country in the world to pass an act obliging local authorities to provide free products for anyone who needs them – not just in schools – and many councils have made substantial headway with this (see How to normalise periods, below). A similar bill is making its way through the Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA, 2021).

Emma points out that menstrual health is now on the English schools curriculum (schools in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have guidance on teaching it, but it’s not yet statutory). ‘That’s [in England] good progress, as long as that education is delivered in a way that meets girls’ needs,’ she says.

‘A lot of fantastic work has been done by grassroots organisations. It’s more present in the media as well. But we still have a long way to go to address the stigma and taboo. Girls are still missing school for fear of leaking: that’s all tied up in the shame that surrounds it.’

Cp Call To Action

  • Encourage schools to sign up to free period product schemes
  • Avoid using the words ‘sanitary’ and ‘hygiene’ when talking about periods – it reinforces the negative stigma. Use ‘periods’ and ‘menstrual’ instead
  • Help schools and workplaces ensure that period products are easily accessible (for example, freely available in toilets)
  • Where possible, include men and boys in conversations about menstrual health
  • Talk to your health and safety workplace rep about how menstruation is taken into account.

How to normalise periods

Before the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2020 was passed, Aberdeen City Council was asked to carry out a pilot project in 2017.

The project was led by local poverty reduction charity Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE). It used its extensive network to help place period products into toilets in schools, community centres and libraries. In the past financial year it has distributed 26,000 packets of disposable period products and 1400 packets of reusable products in Aberdeen.

‘During the pandemic, CFINE has popped some period products into emergency food deliveries where appropriate. It means folk don’t have to go and ask. In lockdown, it was really difficult for some women to find that provision,’ says councillor Lesley Dunbar, spokesperson for young people.

Because CFINE’s delivery network consists of numerous groups, simply adding period products has helped reduce stigma, Lesley adds. ‘Accessibility is such a key part of this; it’s fundamental to the project being a success and also the wider campaign around stigma. There’s nothing wrong with in-your-face campaigning, though – we need as many ways as possible [of normalising periods].’



Department for Education. (2021) Period Products Scheme: management information. See: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1050468/Period_Products_Scheme_January_2022_.pdf (accessed 27 January 2022).

George A. (2021) The pandemic has exacerbated the horrors of period poverty; the free period products scheme must be made mandatory. PoliticsHome. See: politicshome.com/thehouse/article/the-pandemic-has-exacerbated-the-horrors-of-period-poverty-the-free-period-products-scheme-must-be-made-mandatory (accessed 27 January 2022).

Northern Ireland Assembly. (2021) Period Products (Free Provision) Bill. See: niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/legislation/2017-2022-mandate/non-executive-bill-proposals/period-products/ (accessed 27 January 2022).

Plan International UK. (2021) Over one million girls in the UK struggled to afford or access period products during the pandemic. See: https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/over-one-million-girls-in-the-uk-struggled-to-afford-or-access-period-products-during-the-pandemic (accessed 1 February 2022).

Plan International UK. (2020) The state of girls’ rights in the UK: early insights into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on girls. See: ​​https://plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-state-of-girls-rights-coronavirus-reportpdf/download?token=gddEAzlz (accessed 27 January 2022).

Plan International UK. (2019) One in five UK girls teased or bullied because of their period, new survey finds. See: https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/one-in-five-uk-girls-teased-or-bullied-because-of-their-period-new-survey-finds (accessed 27 January 2022).

Plan International UK. (2018) Break the barriers: girls’ experiences of menstruation in the UK. See: https://plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-break-the-barriers-report-032018pdf/download?token=Fs-HYP3v (accessed 27 January 2022).

Image credit | Shutterstock

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