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Make period products as accessible as loo roll

When you think about periods, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Pain, leaks or stains might be at the forefront. You might also think about shame, how you’ve been wrongly taught that periods are a dirty subject to be kept secret and never discussed in public, despite nearly half of the population experiencing this natural bodily function every single month for around 40 years of their lives.

For many people across the UK, periods have an extra layer of monthly anxiety: the cost of menstrual products. Due to the rising cost of living, two in ten working adults are living in poverty. When you’re struggling to make ends meet, the monthly cost of a few boxes of tampons or pads can be devastating. In fact, the charity Bloody Good Period estimates that the average lifetime cost of having a safe and comfortable period is around £4,800.

It is saddening yet unsurprising that one in four people who menstruate in the UK say they or their family has struggled to afford period products. Without access to the essentials, many people are forced to either sacrifice basic needs like food, or use insufficient and impractical makeshift materials like loo roll or sponges that can easily leak through, and are practically unfeasible for those with heavy flows.

The impact of period poverty not only compromises women’s hygiene and dignity, but it is also having a knock-on effect on education and employment. Despite the Government’s 2021 Period Products Scheme, which supplies schools and colleges with free period products, menstruation continues to be a massive disruption to education. According to Irise International, a third of girls are still missing school due to a lack of accessible products, accounting to over three million days missed every year.

In the workplace, adults are also deeply impacted by the lack of available period products. One study found two-thirds of people don’t have access to free menstrual products in the workplace, and one in eight do not even have suitable facilities to change their tampons or pads at work.

one in eight do not even have suitable facilities to change their tampons or pads at work Quote

Without the right products or facilities, some women have no choice but to take days off work and hide in their homes, potentially sacrificing their income. In fact, period inequity results in an extra day of work missed each month – amounting to £3.3 billion in lost workdays every year.

Evidently, more needs to be done to address this gendered crisis. No one should ever find themselves in a situation where they can’t attend school or work due to a lack of basic products. It’s shocking that in one of the richest countries in the world, people are still going without essential products, and relying on small charities such as Bloody Good Period to fill the gaps.

In the weeks leading up to the general election, Empower is urging England to follow the footsteps of Scotland and Wales, where cross-party support for period equality has led to the introduction of free menstrual products in public spaces including food banks, libraries, leisure centres, and community hubs.

There is also a role that employers and big retailers can play in tackling this crisis. Both Tesco and Morrisons have launched schemes that let customers discreetly ask staff to access free period products. If more big brands started similar programmes, and shouted about them, millions of people could save the monthly cost of products.

Some may argue that providing free menstrual products is too costly or impractical for industry or the government. In actuality, the cost of inaction could potentially outweigh the investment required to implement such policies. Studies have shown that providing free menstrual products leads to significant savings in healthcare costs, as it reduces the risk of infections and other menstrual-related complications. Moreover, ensuring access to menstrual products enables women and girls to fully participate in education, work, and public life, ultimately contributing to economic growth and social progress.

Free menstrual products are not just a matter of practicality; they send a powerful message of inclusivity and support. By guaranteeing access to menstrual products, we signal that period poverty is not just a “woman’s problem”. We all either have periods, know someone who has a period, or has had them. It is not a shameful or dirty topic that can be brushed under the carpet any longer. We wouldn’t ever argue whether or not to provide toilet paper and soap for hygiene reasons, so why are period products any different? It’s certainly not acceptable in 2024 that millions of people in the UK are put at a disadvantage due to the inaccessibility of essential products.

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Baroness Sandip Verma is Chair of gender equality campaign, EMPOWER, and a former Ministerial Champion for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls.

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