The charity Bloody Good Period saw an almost 80 per cent rise in demand for period products during the first few months of 2022. Is it time to follow Scotland’s lead and make them free for all?
It’s not easy to quantify the true cost of a period. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by menstrual cup brand Intimina, the price of period products is £10.40 on average per month, or nearly £5,000 over a lifetime. Another, from the year before, estimated it might be closer to £18,000 when factoring in costs of items such as pain relief and comforts like chocolate. There’s also the hours or days lost to painful cramps and disruptive hormones. In 2022, as households feel the cost of living squeeze, the price of a period is expansive, expensive – and rising.
So much so that non-profit Bloody Good Period, which provides sanitary products for those who can’t afford them, recently reported that the first quarter of this year saw a 78 per cent rise in demand for its services. It attributes this to the economic and social impact of the pandemic, and more recently, the excruciating rise in the cost of living. Inflation has sky-rocketed to a record 9 per cent, and reports show that almost a quarter of UK residents are struggling to pay their usual household bills, compared to one year ago.
“There’s lots of discussion around people having to make choices between food and other essentials – but period products are also an essential and when you don’t have them, it leads to really difficult experiences,” says Rachel Grocott, incoming CEO of Bloody Good Period.
Experiences like those of Sophie, whose name has been changed, and who had to resort to wearing reusable nappy pad inserts to cope with having endometriosis – a condition that can cause very heavy periods – a few years back. Period products were simply too expensive for her. “No one should have to make choices like that in 2022,” Grocott says.
While period poverty is not new in the UK, the cost of living crisis has exacerbated the problem. “The thing is, you can’t budget your way out of a period,” Grocott says. But we can all take action. Here’s how.
While a US survey by Intimina found that 72 per cent of women support the idea of free period products – a call often echoed by UK campaigners – Scotland is currently the only country in the world where they are free for “anyone who needs them”.
The move was introduced by Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who has campaigned around the issue since 2016. Lawmakers voted unanimously on the Period Products Bill in November 2020. “Periods don’t stop for pandemics and the work to improve access to essential tampons, pads and reusables has never been more important,” Lennon said at the time.
Elsewhere, Spain recently became the first country to approve a bill that sanctions menstrual leave from work, in an attempt to alleviate some of the stigma. And in the UK, campaigners cheered in January 2021, when VAT was eliminated on period products.
A few years previously, activist Amika George’s campaign Free Periods, was successful in making period products free in schools and colleges in England. Supporting campaigns such as hers can make all the difference.
Image: Markus Spiske
“Lack of access to menstrual hygiene products is an issue all around the world,” says Danela Žagar, global brand manager of Intimina. “Period poverty probably affects someone you know. One in four have had to choose between a meal and a menstrual hygiene product [according to their survey]. That contributes to the many girls who miss school during their period, or adults who have to leave work due to menstruating.”
Without adequate education on period poverty and its knock-on effects, it’s challenging to address the problem. According to Plan UK, of the 17 per cent of girls who struggled to access sanitary products during lockdown in 2020, 37 per cent did not try to access free products, 42 per cent did not know where to look for them, one third felt too embarrassed and the same proportion did not know who to ask.
Education about period poverty can not only lessen the shame and taboo associated with periods but also help ensure that no time at school or work is missed.
“Our recent research shows that the cost of period products is going up,” Grocott continues, “because supply chains are under pressure. And while the individual increases might seem small, over the course of time this really adds up – this isn’t a one-off purchase, it’s every month.”
Using reusables, like a menstrual cup – if the higher one-off spend is tenable – is something to consider. Many period product companies also give back to those experiencing period poverty or stigma, donating a portion of profits to boost causes such as gender equality.
Even if period poverty doesn’t exist for you, it’s likely affecting someone around you. Plus, says Žagar, “nearly three-quarters of women believe menstrual products should be free. And while there are many local initiatives to make products free (such as in Scotland) or reduce taxes on menstrual products, it’s an issue not yet put to rest.”
What we can do is support those existing initiatives.
“We’re asking for more money to be committed by the government to help end period poverty,” Grocott says. “But in the short term, we need to be out there providing products. So if people are in a position to donate, then that’s always very much appreciated… We can turn donations into products that people need, and send them all over the country to our partners who distribute them to food bank users, domestic violence refuges and other community initiatives.”
Finally, Grocott says, shout about your period. “Every conversation can help break down that sense of shame and stigma,” she explains. “It’s not a natural thing to feel ashamed of our bodily function – this is something we’ve been taught: by advertising campaigns and rustle-free wrappers and blue liquid. Even the word sanitary implies that this is a bodily function that needs to be hidden away and not talked about. But that has consequences at times like this.”
Driving discussion underground and allowing shame to grow could have harmful ramifications for thousands. By opening the conversation up, we’re better able to ask for help when necessary, or recognise when someone else might need it, too. Speak up, says Grocott. And let’s all make sure this is an issue that cannot be ignored.
Main image: Georgii Boronin/iStock