Period poverty is a very real issue in the UK, but it’s taken a long time to get onto the mainstream radar.
It wasn’t until 2017 that research revealed girls across Britain were having to skip school when on their periods because they couldn't afford menstrual products — with many using wads of tissue, newspaper, or even socks and old clothes instead.
In fact, 1 in every 10 girls in the UK can’t afford to buy menstrual products, which presents a serious obstacle when it comes to equal access to education and employment. An estimated 49% of girls have missed a whole day of school because of their periods.
That’s why the government’s imminent announcement of a scheme to make free period products available in secondary schools across England is so important.
Take Action: Speak Up: It's Time to #EndPeriodPoverty!
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is expected to make the announcement on Wednesday, when he makes his Spring Statement.
It follows Scotland's announcement of a landmark policy change in August 2018, to provide students at schools, colleges, and universities with free period products — reportedly the first country in the world to introduce such a measure.
And just a week ago, Britain launched a global period poverty fund and taskforce to help all women and girls access sanitary products by 2050.
Today the British government will announce that English secondary schools will get free period products — and it's all thanks to incredible 19-year-old activist @AmikaGeorge 🙌🙌 #FreePeriods#SpringStatement@PhilipHammondUKpic.twitter.com/2VZhWcCFCH— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) March 13, 2019
Activists and campaigners, including many who have been involved in the two-year #FreePeriods campaign spearheaded by teenager Amika George, are pretty pumped about the progress in tackling period poverty.
“It will make a huge difference,” Amika George, who was just 17 when she launched her campaign, told Global Citizen. “It will mean that girls will be able to go to school without the stress of not knowing whether they’ve leaked onto their uniform [or] whether their pad will last until the end of the day, and it will mean they will be able to concentrate on their lessons.
“It will mean that girls don’t have to miss school because they don’t have access to period protection, and it will mean they can fully participate in their education, without being hindered by their biology,” she added.
WE DID IT!!!!! 271,000 of you signed the petition, 2,000 of you protested. Today, the government has just pledged to end #periodpoverty by pledging FREE MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS in all secondary schools! #FreePeriods ♥️ https://t.co/dNx2GR1PEX— Amika George (@AmikaGeorge) March 9, 2019
Why is this an announcement to be celebrated?
George, who launched #FreePeriods two years ago, said it has been "really tough when it sometimes feels like our government doesn't care about the future of young people."
But, for her, the announcement is an indication of something even bigger than the issue of period poverty: the issue of activism, and raising your voice and being heard.
“The announcement will be evidence that it pays to persist," she said. "It pays to keep raising your voice about issues you care about, and it’s proof that activism works.”
She said: “If a 17-year-old girl can start a campaign from her bedroom, then absolutely anyone can!”
Meanwhile, the activists behind the Red Box Project (RBP) — a nationwide, community-powered initiative that provides free period products to local schools, colleges, and youth centres across the UK — said they are “delighted” about the news.
Exactly one year today Thousands of us stood together at the #FreePeriods protest Calling on the government to provide free menstrual products for schoolchildren We are still waiting for long-term change to eradicate period poverty We need to raise our voices even louder We need to keep talking about our periods Join #FreePeriods!!! ❤️❤️
“This is a testament to the huge commitment of our coordinators on the ground and the unstoppable energy of many activists, in particular the incredible team behind the #FreePeriods campaign, of which we are very proud to be a part.”
“We are so glad that the government has at last recognised its responsibility for addressing this inequality in schools,” said RBP’s co-founders, Anna Miles and Gemma Abbott.
Both George and the team behind the Red Box Project are thrilled with the progress their campaign has helped achieve. But they also agree that there is more progress to be made — and that now is the time to do it.
Miles told Global Citizen over email that “while the news is encouraging, it is very much the first of many steps to reaching what we believe to be vital."
That is: free and universal accessibility to menstrual products for all young women in education, regardless of age. And it means that activists now want the scheme rolled out across all education settings: primary, secondary, and colleges.
“Access to a full education is a human right and it is the government’s legal responsibility to act upon this," Miles added. "The Red Box Project should not need to exist.”
According to the Red Box Project, the average age for girls to start their period is 13 — but menstruation can and does begin much earlier than this for some girls, including while they’re still at primary school.
YES!! All the campaigning!! Philip Hammond has promised funds to end period poverty in English schools!!!! Finally, girls won’t miss school because they don’t have pads, and girls and boys will learn about #menstruationmatters@binti_period@paulasherriffhttps://t.co/tL8LjmECMg— Anila Chowdhry (@AnilaDhami) March 9, 2019
Legendary. So many congratulations. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼— Natasha Devon MBE (@_NatashaDevon) March 9, 2019
In fact, of the more than 3,000 red boxes in place across the UK, providing free period products for those who need them, over one-third are in primary schools.
“We know from our work, in thousands of schools across the UK, that the need for free menstrual products is not limited to secondary schools, but also primary schools and colleges,” said Miles and Abbott.
They added that their hope now is to “see further commitment from the government in meeting the needs of all children who menstruate, regardless of their age.”
And, according to campaigners, this commitment neesds to be in legislation.
Miles and Abbott said: “Let’s take this amazing opportunity to ensure that no child will ever again have to miss out on their education because they cannot access the menstrual products they need.”
And for George, the next steps — and the coming challenges — for the campaign are clear: to extend the scheme to colleges and primary schools as well, "so that no child, no matter what her age, has to worry about period poverty."
"We need the funding for this to be ring-fenced, and we need to make sure that this is no hollow promise, but must be enshrined in legislation," she told Global Citizen.
George continued that there is still a “huge amount of work to do to battle the ridiculous stigma that’s often culturally entrenched.”
“We need to normalise conversations around periods, and we need to stop with the shame and embarrassment that we often feel when we talk about our periods,” she said.
“I think once we achieve that, and periods are a subject that men, women, boys, and girls talk about freely and without any reticence, then we will be a step closer towards achieving gender equality,” she said. “For now, it seems a long way off, but we are making progress!”