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GIRLS missing school days, women missing work days, “improvised” sanitary products, and the embarrassment — oh, the embarrassment.
The scourge of period poverty runs deep through our communities, embedded in the taboo of talking about periods, and exacerbated by the austerity-driven agenda of this government.
To those of us who watched the tear-jerking I, Daniel Blake, the problem of period poverty in 21st-century Britain is not a new phenomenon.
When you use a public toilet, a work toilet, and when our children use school toilets, we expect that toilet roll will be provided.
So why is it that access to sanitary products is any different? Why is it that we don’t expect sanitary products to be available and accessible?
According to research by Plan International UK, 12 per cent of girls admitted to using “improvised” sanitary wear.
By “improvised,” we mean girls in 21st-century Britain being forced to use products such as socks or tissue in place of the sanitary products they cannot afford. The same study found an astonishing 15 per cent of girls admitted they struggled to afford sanitary wear.
Yet period poverty is not just a problem for women, it is a problem for our entire society. It affects every teacher who has to help the schoolgirl that missed a day of education due to a lack of sanitary products.
It affects every organisation with an employee who missed a day of work because they couldn’t access clean toilets.
It is a problem for every GP or hospital that has to treat the impact of using unhygienic “improvised” substitutes. It is a problem for our education system, our NHS, and all of our communities, and it is one we simply cannot ignore.
The government’s current proposals don’t go nearly far enough if we are to truly achieve period dignity.
Last year I ran a campaign in my home borough of Halton in Cheshire, supporting Unite’s call for period dignity. Along with other comrades I raised awareness of the issue, collected hundreds of pounds’ worth of sanitary products, passed a motion through Halton Council and submitted a motion to Labour’s national policy forum.
When I collected donations of sanitary products, I realised just how deeply the scourge of period poverty runs through our communities.
Homeless charities, local community groups, primary schools and women’s refuges are desperately grateful for donations.
Volunteers up and down the country work tirelessly to meet demand, boxing up donations and delivering them where the need is greatest.
This is a damning indictment of 21st-century Britain. Women and girls are forced to rely on volunteers and donations in order to access essential products.
To make matters worse, those essential sanitary products are classed as non-essential “luxury” items and therefore attract VAT, driving up the price, and driving up period poverty along with it.
Those who are already struggling to survive in Tory Britain are forced out of buying the products they so desperately need.
Last year, the government finally gave in to pressure and committed to funding some free sanitary products for secondary schools, with further criticism forcing a promise to extend the scheme to over 20,000 primary schools.
However, it is still not clear how “eligibility” for those free sanitary products will work, as the government remains tight-lipped over how it arrived at the cost of delivering the contract.
There is also a worrying lack of assurance that the initiative will be fully funded beyond 2020, with the current contract for delivering the scheme only running over an initial period of 12 months.
Crucially, there is no clear commitment to tackling period poverty outside of schools. The Scottish and Welsh governments have committed to their own schemes for providing free sanitary products in schools.
But make no mistake about it, the campaign for period dignity does not end with the promise of a time-limited supply of sanitary products to schools.
The government has to do more to make sanitary products accessible to all, and to end the taboo that surrounds periods.
We have all heard the stories of girls having to explain to a teacher, in front of their classmates, why it is they need to visit the toilet for the third time today.
We have grappled with those machines — that are so often empty — that require coins to buy overpriced tampons in public facilities.
We have heard the casual jokes about “that time of the month.” Period dignity is so much more than anything our politicians are currently offering.
Our trade unions must keep up their campaigns to end period poverty and ensure it stays at the forefront of the political agenda.
We must take the fight for period dignity to our workplaces, our schools and our communities. We are potentially on the cusp of a truly socialist Labour government, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that socialism leads the way, by committing so much more to achieving period dignity in our society.
The fight for period dignity will not end with charity, but with action from our legislators. We need a sustainable solution, and for that we have to demand action from the government to scrap VAT, improve the affordability and accessibility of sanitary products, and break the taboo.
We demand period dignity.
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