Period Poverty and the Stigma of Menstruation

Illustration by Emma Drake

It doesn’t take much to alter your view of the world. I took my first plane ride in April 2019, heading out to the Gambia with 12 other students to volunteer at a school. Before the trip, ‘period poverty’ was a phrase that had barely crossed my mind. It had never seemed relevant to my life in the UK. Now I know that 1 in 10 people who menstruate in the UK can’t afford menstrual products: the issue was right under my nose all along.

But why had period poverty evaded my attention? Why had it taken a trip to a developing country - where the problem was much more pronounced - to open my eyes? My privilege was the main factor shielding me from this issue. Those lacking similar experiences haven’t necessarily had a reason to wonder what less fortunate people do, especially those in developing countries. My privilege is something that I have often struggled to admit to. In the past I have focused on the disadvantages I possess and my identity with these, rather than recognising the privileges that put me in a position to speak out and protect me from certain struggles. Even living in the UK itself grants me an access to information and products that those in Gambia live without. It’s important to acknowledge this.

Alongside this is the recognition that period poverty is also common in the UK. Although we like to brand ourselves as a progressive and activist nation, we continually fall into a pattern of avoidance concerning topics such as menstruation. Is that all, though? Many issues which have been previously sidestepped in this way are beginning to become more mainstream: mental health, sexual harassment and the treatment of minorities have thankfully begun to get attention from the media. (It must be noted that these are all valid and vital topics of their own.) However, the global movement countering period poverty is a campaign in the shadows.

One of the major difficulties activists face is that most of the activism surrounding period poverty is led by young womxn. Young womxn - particularly young womxn of colour - are still being viewed as inferior and dismissed for being ‘too sensitive’. We only have to look at the recent example of Greta Thunberg’s environmental work to see numerous criticisms, ranging from “she should go back to the classroom” to “why should I care what a teenager thinks?” to “how dare you… emotional teenager – silly girl”. All these comments have been taken verbatim from Twitter. While it is important to foster an interest in the subject outside of the standard demographics, it is first essential that the voices of young womxn don’t go unheard or dismissed any longer.

In addition to this, there is a concerning lack of representation and people in power who can relate to this issue. This makes it difficult for those affected - who are generally economically disadvantaged womxn - to have large scale change made in their favour. Private school education is currently over-represented in UK Parliament by around 20%, and 4 in 5 of privately educated MP'S are from the present party in government, The Conservative Party. This illustrates an elitist sway in the system. Not to mention the struggles faced by minority groups within the movement itself who are disproportionately affected, such as Trans and BIPOC individuals. These voices have even less chance of being taken seriously.

For decades, the stereotypical ideas of young womxn we have been taught have been used to make womxn seem inferior. This all has a direct impact on the issue of period poverty, making conversations surrounding menstruation simply the hormone-fuelled, inexperienced way to feel relevant (and periods are just nasty). There is already a taught shame and stigma surrounding menstruation; not being able to afford or access period products can increase that shame tenfold. Those being affected are often too embarrassed to speak up. I was shocked to discover the amount of people I’d unknowingly encountered who deal with this every month. Silently. Each year 137,700 children miss school due to period poverty in the UK.

But what can we do? When my friends and I started ‘padsforgambia’ a few months after witnessing the extent of period poverty in the Gambia, we had little clue where to start. In the end, we came up with two main goals. The first was to encourage an eco-friendly use of period products (and hopefully raise funds for the campaign) by selling handmade reusable pads on our Depop page. While talking to the founder of the charity SchoolGambia, we learnt that suitable waste disposal is really difficult out in the Gambia, and having single-use pads in the street would only serve to worsen the stigma and disgust surrounding menstruation. Having been shown the sewing packs given to empower the community to make their own reusable pads, we decided to use this newfound information in our sister campaign.

Our second goal is to provide education about the topic and its impact here in the UK and in the Gambia. At the moment this consists of in-school assemblies and our Instagram page, @padsforgambia. One statistic that blew my mind was that, on average, we spend £13 on period products per month, or £156 per year. Investing in reusable period products- pads, panties or cups- can significantly decrease this expenditure while aiding the environment. It’s estimated that a single menstruator uses 5,000 to 15,000 single-use period products over their lifetime, which mainly end up as plastic waste.

However, we also need to recognise these as more than products. They’re a requirement and a right. Usually when we discuss basic necessities (food, water, shelter), period products are left out of the equation. It’s overlooked that those below the breadline may well have to choose between eating a meal or a box of tampons. I’m optimistic that, as activists within the movement break down more barriers in their way, more people will start to acknowledge period products as a vital need. The persistent taboo surrounding menstruation, the shame many experience due to the lack of access to resources and opposition to young activists can no longer be tolerated.

Written by Honey Harrop