On Wednesday 20 December, the streets of Westminster were filled with protesters. Nothing unusual – except that this time, the protest will be about periods. #FreePeriods, in fact.
Hundreds of people (dressed in red, of course) got together to make the point that the taboo, stigma and cost associated with periods are problems that need tackling – by government, by society, and through better education in schools.
There were some seriously good period puns. There were excellent fancy dress costumes. (In the Plan International UK office, where I work, we’re busting period taboos for Christmas: we currently have a tampon Christmas tree, a tampon piñata and a novelty Santa beard made out of tampons. Tampons make excellent mini snowmen for your tree, by the way.)
But slogans and costumes aside, today’s demo had a very serious message. A recent survey by Plan International UK found that half of girls are embarrassed by their period. One in 10 have been unable to afford sanitary wear. A quarter didn’t know what to do when their first period arrived. Only one in five girls are comfortable talking about their period with their teacher.
In 2017, in the UK, these numbers are frankly shocking. I don’t buy it when people say that in the scheme of things, this isn’t an important issue. Or the argument that men’s razors are pricey too. Because, fundamentally, this is an issue of gender discrimination, and it is holding girls back.
Girls not being able to manage their periods is not a joke. In fact, in some countries, it is an issue of life and death; girls in Nepal are reported to have died when banished to so-called ‘period huts’, for fear that they are ‘dirty’ when on their periods. Girls in countries such as Uganda miss significant periods of school because they don’t have the right products; something we’re trying to tackle by supplying innovative reusables.
Back in the UK, if a girl feels unable to ask her teacher to be excused, or has to improvise sanitary wear because she can’t afford it (12% of girls have done this in the UK), then we’re failing as a society to normalise something that is, well, as normal as it comes.
The good news is that there are clever, easy, and low-cost solutions to this problem. Amika George, one of the many amazing young activists behind today’s protest, is calling for sanitary wear to be distributed in schools. In government spending terms, this wouldn’t cost much.
But we need to go further than that. As Amika has said, this issue is not purely about cost – immensely worrying though it is that some women and girls can’t afford sanitary wear. It’s bigger, and deeper than that. Shame, stigma and poor quality education are also driving the problem.
So, along with policies to ensure that all girls and young women have access to products (and that, by the way, should mean a full range of products including reusables), we need a new approach to education.
The new relationships and sex education, currently being consulted on and designed by the government, offers a prime opportunity. Lessons – which should be for boys as well as girls – need to cover not just the biological but the social and emotional aspects of having a period. And the message needs to be that this isn’t something to hide away or be ashamed of.
The C-Card scheme, in which condoms and sexual health advice are freely available to anyone who signs up, has been a huge success. Not just in terms of ensuring people have condoms, but also ensuring they have the information and knowledge on how to have sex safely.
There’s a real parallel here. There’s a cost element, and a stigma element. So that’s why at Plan International UK we are calling for a new P-Card scheme. Anyone who menstruates could sign up and have sanitary wear, advice and information available from a range of locations including schools, pharmacies, youth clubs and clinics.
It’s clear from today’s protest that young women want something done. Let’s hope the government listens, and adopts a common-sense, open-to-all and inclusive policy to tackle period poverty and taboos once and for all.