Earlier this year, it was reported that educational welfare officers in Leeds had discovered that children were regularly missing school during their period because their parents could not afford to buy them menstrual products. This story highlighted the extent to which the austerity policies of the last few years have widened inequality and plunged millions of children into ever worsening poverty, as well as the impact of the menstrual taboo on vulnerable children.
Teachers, working in an overburdened and underfunded system, are already buying their kids breakfast and school supplies just so they can learn. Are they now expected to provide basic hygiene products too?
This news will not have come as a shock to educators. Any teacher can tell you about the increasing number of children who come to school hungry because their parents can't feed them, or wearing dirty clothes because there's no electric on the meter for the washing machine. For every child who is missing up to a week of school every month, there are countless more who are using rolled up toilet paper, socks or newspaper instead of sanitary towels or who are dependent upon their teachers to provide these essential products. Even more alarmingly, there are children with limited access to menstrual products, risking toxic shock syndrome by leaving tampons in for too long. Teachers, working in an overburdened and underfunded system, are already buying their kids breakfast and school supplies just so they can learn. Are they now expected to provide basic hygiene products too?
At Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists, we started a petition for the state to provide free sanitary protection to all children in all schools. Within two weeks, we had reached fifty thousand signatures and now, a few months later, we are closing in on ninety. There is clearly widespread public support for this simple policy which would improve countless lives and remove a barrier to education for many children.
We are adamant that this scheme should not be funded from existing education budgets, which are already stretched to the point of breaking. We are also determined that it should not be linked to free school meals, or any other marker of poverty, as this will increase stigma and likely cost more to implement than it would save.
We feel that, by providing tampons and sanitary towels free of charge to all children, we can begin to normalize menstruation and fight the stigma at the same time as removing period poverty as a barrier to education.
We estimate the scheme would cost less than eleven pounds per year for each child. This is not an unrealistic amount to ask so that all children can access education and achieve their potential.
It is important to remember that, for most of these children, help would have been available. Whether it be teachers, other family members, or school friends, the vast majority of kids have a network of people who could help. Whilst it is absolutely wrong that vulnerable teenagers should be reliant on the charity of their communities for such a basic product, the fact that so few seek it is telling.
We feel that, by providing tampons and sanitary towels free of charge to all children, we can begin to normalize menstruation and fight the stigma at the same time as removing period poverty as a barrier to education. This is only a first step: what this has shown is that the current system is failing our kids. They are not being taught how to talk about their own bodies or given the confidence to do so. We believe that a long term solution lies in better sex and relationship education.
Periods are not a “girl” thing or a “woman” thing, they are a “uterus” thing.
We need to stop separating children into different rooms on the basis of their biological sex. This teaches young AFAB (assigned female at birth) children that the basic functions of their reproductive system are something to be discussed in hushed tones, and only with those who have the same biology. It also encourages AMAB (assigned male at birth) children to think of periods as something mysterious and distant, and gives them the expectation that they should never have to discuss them. We must stop gendering the conversation so heavily. Periods are not a “girl” thing or a “woman” thing, they are a “uterus” thing. Trans boys and AFAB non-binary children have periods too, and right now their experiences are being excluded from the conversation. We need to have more frank discussion of the symptoms of menstruation and at what point these become something you should seek medical attention for. We need to create spaces for kids to talk to their teachers and peers about their experiences and concerns. Most of all, we need to talk openly and without bias about the different ways of managing your period. Not just pads and tampons but menstrual cups and other reusable methods need to be explained clearly and accurately to kids at a young age, so they can make an informed decision about what works best for them.To do all that though, we need to get children in school and ready to learn. Not worrying about whether they will bleed through the roll of toilet paper in their underwear or trying to work out which friend they can borrow the next pad off without anyone realising they can't afford their own.
Our campaign has had a lot of support, both from the public and in the media. We’re getting tantalizingly close to a hundred thousand signatures on the petition and have begun talking to politicians about how we can implement this. As educators, we're sure many of you have seen first-hand the devastation period poverty can cause in a teenager. We would be very grateful if you could support us by signing and sharing the petition, so we have as much evidence of public support as possible to show those with the power to do this.
We are also in the process of designing a workshop to be run in schools that gets kids talking about menstruation and period poverty, before giving them the skills to set up donation drives to help supply their own school community with menstrual products. This is a short-term solution but we think it has the potential to help kids in need, at the same time as providing valuable experience of community organising to teenagers.
We would greatly welcome the input of educators to make sure what we come up works for both students and schools. We’d also love to hear from teachers who think their schools might like to trial the program, as well as those who have stories they would be willing to share (anonymously) for our website. If you think you can help with this or in any other way please get in touch.
Together, we can make sure menstruation is never a barrier to education.
Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists