What is period poverty?

Period poverty refers to having a lack of access to sanitary protection due to financial constraints. Many of us are lucky enough to probably take period products for granted, however, period poverty is a reality faced by many women over the world.

In 2017, period poverty gained exposure in the media after a teacher in Leeds contacted a local charity after becoming concerned that girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford period products.

In fact, according to Plan International UK, one in ten girls in the UK are unable to afford hygiene products and are using inappropriate sanitary substitutes such as socks or newspaper or are missing school whilst on their period because they are unable to afford period products. In London, this number is closer to one in seven.

period poverty stats uk The consequences of this are quite serious, impacting education, health, and general quality of life for thousands of women and especially teenage girls in the UK.

Around the world, an estimated one in ten young women has been unable to afford protection for their period. 12% have been forced to improvise with devices that may be ineffective, unhygienic, and unsafe.

In the European Union, sanitary products are regulated and taxed as luxury items. This 5% so-called ‘tampon tax’ is a burden on household incomes: past studies report that a fifth of UK parents has struggled to afford sanitary protection for their daughters.

Period poverty isn’t by any means a new problem, but the actions of 18-year-old activist Amika George, who launched her #freeperiods movement on Twitter, have recently ignited conversations in the media. She states: “Periods are a natural process that is a part of nearly every girl’s life. But without access to…sanitary products, girls’ lives are put on hold during their period, as they have little choice but to stay at home.”

In August 2018, Scotland made history as the country leading a global movement to end period poverty. The government promised to invest £5.2m to provide free menstrual products in schools, colleges, and universities across the country. According to this scheme, period supplies will be made available in toilets, just as paper and soap are already provided. The scheme’s objective is to ensure that all students have access to the pads, tampons, and products they need, regardless of financial means.

Research on period poverty in the UK

At the end of 2017, Plan International UK released their latest research around Period Poverty and the stigma surrounding menstruation in the UK.

What they found was astonishing:

  • One in ten girls (10%) have been unable to afford sanitary wear
  • One in seven girls (15%) have struggled to afford sanitary wear
  • One in seven girls (14%) have had to ask to borrow sanitary wear from a friend due to affordability issues
  • More than one in ten girls (12%) has had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues
  • One in five (19%) of girls have changed to a less suitable sanitary product due to cost

The research also looked at the stigma surrounding periods and menstruation as they can leave young women feeling embarrassed, isolated, and anxious. Using inappropriate products, or using products for too long, carries significant health risks, as well as has an impact on someone’s dignity and self-esteem.

Further statistics on taboo and stigma surrounding periods and menstruation

  • Nearly half (48%) of girls aged 14-21 in the UK are embarrassed by their periods
  • Only one in five (22%) girls feel comfortable discussing their period with their teacher
  • Almost three quarters (71%) of girls admitted that they have felt embarrassed buying sanitary products

You can view the full report here. :

BBC report Video:

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Are you struggling to see how period poverty is a thing?

Despite these shocking statistics, there are still those who challenge the importance of the Period Poverty movement and the need to provide women with free period products.

Don’t worry you are not the only one. If you have never experienced period poverty and are struggling to understand how items, which can be found cheaply in supermarkets like Asda and Tesco, cannot be afforded by girls across the UK, we have a few answers for you:

  • It is possible for items to be too expensive for families to afford:  Although it is true that some products are available cheaply, it is also true that not all products are suitable or accessible to everyone.

For many families, even the cheapest of products can be an expense too far when they can barely afford to put food on the table. In some areas of London, such as Hackney and Newham, over 40% of children live in poverty. Foodbank dependency increased by 13% in 2018, as welfare benefits failed to meet basic living costs.

If you are a low-income family that is struggling to put food on the table, pay rent, pay bills, pay for transportation to get to work, spending £2-£4 pounds on period products can be a huge strain.

Low income is the biggest single, and fastest-growing reason for referral to food banks. It is quite simple – if you can’t afford food, you can’t afford menstrual products.

It’s also worth noting that, period poverty doesn’t just affect young girls. There are times when you are down on your luck and have only a couple of pounds to last you the week. Buying food so that you can eat, will always take priority.

Asking for help isn’t always as easy as it seems, especially when a topic is surrounded by embarrassment and stigma. Not being able to afford a basic necessity that everyone around you can, can be extremely stressful on women of all ages.

Poverty is just one issue that may affect a person’s access to period products. There are multiple social and cultural reasons why products might not be available at home, many of which are linked with the stigma that persists around menstruation.

  • Not every girl feels comfortable or is able to ask her parents: Though most parents, especially mums will buy products for themselves and their daughters, not every relationship with parents is a good one. In families where abuse and neglect exist, asking for period products could be challenging. Moreover, if a girl lives only with her father, she might feel embarrassed to ask him for these products.
  • If neglect is happening – girls might be scared of telling their teachers: Not having access to period products can be seen as a form of neglect as it covers everything from being left alone, not being fed or hygiene issues. Talking to a teacher might result in them having to report this and causing scrutiny onto the family.

Poverty and difficult circumstances are not the only reasons for making period products freely available. Here are a few more:

  • Periods are not always regular: It takes a few years for a menstrual cycle to regulate itself. During the first few years, girls are likely to suffer from irregular periods, meaning that they are very likely to get caught without period products. Having easy access to period products as and when needed, can save them embarrassment.
  • It is possible to run out: There will be times a girl simply runs out of period products or gets caught off guard. Whether she is in school, university or at work, she should have the possibility to access these products in a manner that is easy and uneventful.
  • Period products meet a basic need: They are just like toilet paper and needed to manage a bodily function that is uncontrollable.

It’s important to acknowledge that just because a problem does not apply to oneself, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Art by @hazel.mead on Instagram

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Fighting the stigma surrounding Periods

Even for those privileged enough not to have to worry about a lack of sanitary supplies, the embarrassment of a period (particularly in a school and office environment) is a familiar feeling –  – sneaking a tampon up the sleeve or slowly trying to rip open a pad as quietly as possible.

Making period products available in toilets helps remove the stigma around periods and making their normality.

Encouragingly, there are a number of MPs who have declared their support for Amika George’s campaign. A London protest on December 20 saw speakers including Jess Phillips and the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran, who recently spoke openly to parliament about her own memories of period shame at school.

Amrika stated: “It’s so important to have MPs who are vociferous in speaking out on behalf of women in the House of Commons because we are underrepresented in the House in the first instance and women’s issues may well get sidelined by other more ‘pressing’ issues.”

Organizations and governments fighting period poverty

Charity organizations fighting period poverty:

  • Red Box ProjectAims to ensure that no young woman goes without access to menstrual protection. The project uses donations from local communities to provide red boxes filled with period products and spare underwear to more than 750 schools across the UK.
  • Brook Project: Their ‘Let’s talk. Period.’ is a new project committed to ending period poverty in the UK by providing free period products to vulnerable and disadvantaged young people who menstruate as well as educating young people about menstruation and their bodies in order to promote period positivity and remove shame and stigma.
  • The Homeless PeriodLocal Food banks and homeless shelters are also great places to reach out to and give donations directly.
  • #Freeperiods movement: Together with the Red Box Project, a nonprofit, and the Pink Protest, an activist organization, George’s #FreePeriods campaign has also set up a crowdfunding drive to raise money in support of a legal case to support free menstrual products for students who need them in England.

Governments fighting period poverty:

The UK has launched a global fund to help end ‘period poverty’ by 2050. The government pledged to give 2 million pounds ($2.64 million) to organizations working to end period poverty globally and has also earmarked 250,000 pounds to create a task force of government departments, charities, and private enterprises to tackle the issue.

In particular, the Scottish Government has taken vital steps to address period poverty. Not only is it running pilot schemes to help facilitate access to free period products for low-income families, but will also be providing free access to products in all schools, colleges, and universities; becoming the first national government ever to do so. 

Progress is also being made in Wales, where the government allocated £1m earlier this year to address period poverty in communities and improve facilities in schools.

Real-life examples of free period products making a difference

Taking steps to ensure those who need period products have them in the moment of need, whether because they can’t afford them or simply because they forgot them, can make a huge impact and difference in someone’s life.

The Portal Box boxing club is a great example of how making period products freely and readily available can not only remove the stigma around them but also help girls thrive in that environment.

After noticing that many of his young female boxers would often pull out of training because they had forgotten their sanitary products or their period had started unexpectedly,  owner and trainer Simon Jones decided to make sure they could find these in the moment of need, without having to ask or call their parents.

Meeting this need, not only made sure that girls didn’t miss any more training, but it also created an inclusive and welcoming environment where girls can thrive.


Writers note – Though change is happening we live in a world that has been dominated by a patriarchal society. Because of this, women’s needs have often been dismissed. Period products being taxed and not available in toilets as a necessity is a consequence of this.

And yet – because it’s how it’s always been and what we are used to when confronted with whether or not these products should be made freely available to girls (whether they can afford them or not) we dismiss it as unnecessary.

Art by @hazel.mead on Instagram.


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**If you are struggling with period poverty, or know someone who is, please get in touch and we’ll do our best to support you.**