Period poverty was already a problem in the UK before coronavirus, but the pandemic has had a worsening effect on young people’s access to period products and, by extension, their education.
Those are the findings of the latest Period Equality study by hygiene provider, PHS Group, which highlights an increase in the number of girls who are missing learning due to their periods – 35% of teenage girls took time off school because of their period in the past year, a 7% increase since 2019.
The survey of more than 1000 girls between the ages of 13 and 18 at school or college in the UK found that girls missing class due to their period is still the biggest cause of school absences. Of those surveyed, 28% of girls missed lessons more than once, 27% were unable to do their schoolwork and 26% felt that they couldn’t leave their home due to their period.
This backs up a recent study by Plan International UK that suggests more than a third of girls have struggled to afford or access period products during the pandemic, leaving some to stuff their underwear with toilet paper when left in need.
That’s despite a new government pledge at the start of 2020 to provide free period products to all schools and colleges in England, following similar policies being introduced in Scotland and Wales.
Molly Fenton, a 19-year-old activist, tells HuffPost UK she isn’t surprised by the new research. “It’s very worrying to see how little was being done by the people in power, especially now that there are products available,” she says. “These numbers are going to continue to rise, as people are finding it harder than ever to have a stable income.”
Although awareness of period poverty is growing, there’s still a stigma around it. A third of female students surveyed by PHS Group said they’d used another excuse for their period-related absence as they were uncomfortable discussing the real reason, while 39% said they think the issue needs to be de-stigmatised.
Fenton believes that shame continues to play a big part. “People feel a lot of guilt around it as if it’s their own fault. They see it as something that holds them back. It doesn’t just affect things like missing education but also socially. It affects every aspect of life.”
Though this directly affects girls’ education, not enough schools are joining the dots. During the pandemic, when students were studying at home, nearly six in 10 girls said their school had not sent period products home, and 12% of girls confessed to stealing sanitary products at some point during the pandemic.
Chris Brown, head of public sector at PHS Group said: “Our latest study has shown that period inequality is still a big issue that needs addressing urgently. While there is an increased awareness of the disruption periods can bring to daily lives, the increase in those who cannot afford or access these basic products is alarming – and the pandemic has worsened the situation for many already struggling to pay for essentials.”