Facts & Figures

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Period Poverty: Why one in ten young women in the UK struggle to afford Pads or Tampons

A survey by the charity Plan International UK found that one in 10 girls or women aged 14 to 21 in Britain cannot afford sanitary towels or tampons. This seems a shocking statistic, given that the country is one of the wealthiest in the world. Indeed, some people on social media have questioned the statistic, finding it difficult to believe that anyone might not be able to afford the cost of sanitary products.

A packet of 20 sanitary towels or tampons costs roughly £2 to £3, and women might need at least a couple of packets a month: that’s a total monthly cost of £5 to £10. Other costs potentially include pain relief. While it might not seem like a great deal of money, it is sadly the case that a growing number of people – particularly younger people – are struggling to afford the basics.

Over the past few years, there has been a massive rise in the use of food banks. In 2016-17, charities handed out more than 1.2 million emergency food parcels. There has also been an increase in people sleeping rough over the past few years, and the numbers evicted from rented homes increased dramatically from 2010 to 2015.

Young people are too often at the sharp end of poverty, either as children of poor families, or as young people trying to live independent lives. Families with children are more likely to live in poverty than others due to the falling level of benefit income, but also due to low wages and increasing costs, given how prices are rising at the moment.

Parents are borrowing money to make ends meet and falling into debt with their rent, electricity, gas, council tax and other bills. There is no spare cash. When young people try to leave home, they are faced with exorbitant rents and little support from the government to pay them.

Youth unemployment has decreased, but zero-hours contracts mean that wages vary massively from week to week, making it very difficult to manage money effectively. What’s more, the National Living Wage – which has given a pay boost to more than 300,000 low-income earners – does not extend to under-25s. Even those who go to university may not receive enough maintenance support to pay their rent – let alone their bills.

The media interest in “period poverty” originally focused on the case of a schoolgirl using a sock because her lone mother could not afford to buy sanitary items. The topic of periods has traditionally been a taboo, but such examples need to be shared, to shame the nation into action.

Scotland, at least, is piloting offering free sanitary products to women and girls. Meanwhile in England, schools are being asked to use their discretion (and their already tight budgets) to decide for themselves how to respond. Further education colleges and schools also need to consider what they might do about this issue.

But the basic problem is that, despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there is a growing number of young people who do not have enough to cover the basic costs of shelter, food, fuel and hygiene. As well as dealing with this particular issue, it’s necessary to tackle the root causes of this problem, so that people can live with dignity and decency in society.

Karen Rowlingson is a Professor of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham, this article was originally published on The Conversation.

Menstruation in Scotland – facts and statistics


Menstruation, or periods, usually start around the age of 12 and the average age of menopause is 50 years old. The number of girls and women in Scotland within this age-range (using data from mid-2015) is estimated to be around 1,302,0003. The average length of a menstrual cycle is 26.8 days meaning that the average menstruating female experiences 13.6 menstrual cycles each year. Since the average length of a period is five days, the average menstruating female has 68 menstruating days each year. Therefore, the total annual number of menstruating days in Scotland is approximately 89 million.

While menstruation is predominately experienced by women and girls, it is also experienced by some trans people. Access to sanitary products should be made available to all those who menstruate, regardless of gender identity, and all approaches taken to improving access to sanitary products should be trans inclusive.

Types of sanitary products

Just like periods themselves, the types of sanitary products which women use and prefer vary, depending on the individual. There are a variety of types of sanitary pads and tampons that can be purchased, in a range of sizes and shapes to fit individual need. Some women may prefer to use reusable pads, which are considered to be more environmentally friendly, and some also use menstrual cups which can be reused over a much longer period of time.

It’s generally recommended that products should be changed every three to five hours, so an average individual can be expected to regularly use up to four or five tampons or towels per day.

Period stigma – what’s the big deal?

Despite the fact that there are approximately 1.3 million people in Scotland who collectively experience almost 90 million days of menstrual bleeding every year, periods remain a taboo subject. Bleeding and cramps apparently aren’t topics for polite conversation – so, more often than not, discussing periods happens in a hushed tone or not at all. Understanding this underlying cultural attitude about periods is crucial to understanding why access to menstrual sanitary products remains an issue in Scotland in 2017.

Recent media stories about the stigma of menstruation in parts of the world such as Nepal have sparked controversy due to the reported deaths of several women over the past two years because of the practice of removing women from society during their period. The practice of “Chhaupadi” involves thousands of women and girls moving to makeshift huts, removed from their society, for the duration of their period because of beliefs about the so-called ‘impurity’ of menstrual blood.

While such extreme behaviour might not exist in Scotland, a 2016 survey by ActionAid revealed that a third of British women are embarrassed about their periods and recent research to mark 2017 World Menstrual Hygiene Day also revealed that one in four women in the UK, aged between 16 and 39, don’t understand their menstrual cycle. Even if you do have a good insight into your own cycle, the onset of menstruation can still happen unexpectedly.

The squeamishness which can accompany discussion of women’s bodies is an undeniable part of why menstruation and period poverty has never before been such a widely discussed issue at decision-making level. Without doubt, the silence and stigma around menstrual bleeding and women’s bodies remains a significant cultural barrier to successfully addressing what happens when people cannot access these vital products. For as long as national policy and debate remains ignorant or silent on the issues affecting women and girls, then government outcomes will continue to fall well short in meeting their needs.

Periods and education

A significant finding of the YouGov research, commissioned by ActionAid last year, was that more than 3.5 million girls and women in the UK had missed school or work because of their period, yet only 27 per cent were honest about the cause of absence, with the majority (65 per cent) reluctant to state that menstruation was the reason.

Further anecdotal evidence about absenteeism caused by periods caused a media stir in March 2017, when schoolgirls in Leeds were revealed to be missing school days because they couldn’t afford sanitary protection. They were having to resort to using toilet paper and even socks as replacements for sanitary products. One girl admitted she had to tape toilet roll to her underwear as a replacement for sanitary products, and misses school every month when she has her period. The organisation Freedom4Girls raised concerns after being contacted by a school in Leeds which was worried about teenage girls’ attendance. The group, originally set up to collect sanitary products for women in Kenya, is now doing the same for women and girls in West Yorkshire.

The potential impact of young people missing school, or facing difficulty managing their menstruation while they are in education, has worrying implications for the longterm impact on attendance rates, educational outcomes and their physical health, as PE tends to be a subject skipped by schoolgirls when they are menstruating – a problem which can continue into adulthood with women avoiding sporting activities.

Official Scottish Government statistics on the attendance record of pupils show that boys and girls have an almost identical record of attendance until around S2, around the average age most girls will begin menstruating. At this point, the attendance rate of girls drops slightly compared to their male peers. Thereafter, the gap remains throughout the rest of secondary school until S6. Although this is a correlation along gender lines, more research will need to be conducted in Scotland before it can be established whether this slightly poorer attendance rates in girls is related to menstruation.

The problem of girls missing out on education due to inadequate access to sanitary products is more commonly associated with developing countries. There is a wealth of academic research into the gender gap in education around the world, with many studies specifically focusing on girls’ experience of menstruation while at school. In addition to issues arising because of lack of sanitation, issues of embarrassment and stigma were also found to be significant factors affecting girls’ lack of involvement in school during their period – with lack of access to sanitary products being a significant point of anxiety in this.

People should not face disadvantage because of menstruation anywhere in the world, and it is a scandal that this should be occurring in a developed, wealthy country like Scotland in 2017, where we have an advanced state school system and economic infrastructure.

Period poverty

Poverty in Scotland is a growing problem, increasing by two per cent overall last year, according to official Scottish Government statistics. It means that after housing costs are taken into account, there are 1.05 million people in Scotland, including more than one in four children (260,000) living in poverty. Child poverty rose by 4% in 2015-16 and 64 % of adults in poverty also live in a working household.

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that food bank use in Scotland has increased by 9% in the last year and is now at a record high, while additional anecdotal evidence on the increasing problem of poverty in Scotland is also found in a recent report from the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) which revealed rising levels of poverty and inequality in Scottish schools. It stated that more than half of teachers have had to use their own money to provide food and other basic essentials for pupils.

As the cost of living continues to rise and wages stagnate, it’s unsurprising that families on low incomes are struggling to afford the basic necessities – which includes the cost of sanitary products as well as food and heating.

The specific issue of period poverty was featured in the hard-hitting 2016 film I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach. It explores the devastating financial impact of benefit sanctions operated by the UK Government. The film features a female character, with two young children, who is forced into a desperate financial situation after her benefit payments are reduced. On screen, we see her go without food and sanitary products and in an act of desperation she steals sanitary products from a shop. Far from being just a dramatization in a film, the choice between food and other essential items has become an agonising reality for far too many women in Scotland, as the Trussell Trust and other charities have confirmed. Despite the fact that a pack of sanitary pads can be found in most supermarkets for a couple of pounds and might not seem like a huge expense – when you have no or very little income, it can be insurmountable.

This was well illustrated recently in the Daily Record, in coverage of the story of Shauna – a mum from Dundee who struggled to afford the cost of sanitary products to cope with post-natal bleeding after the birth of her son when her tax credits payment was delayed and her husband’s pay wasn’t due until the end of the month.

No-one should have to rely on the kindness of strangers to be able to access essential items. Giving people the ability to access sanitary products for free could help to ease the pressure on household budgets for families on low incomes.

Letter from Monica Lennon MSP

Menstruation is a natural bodily function of women and young girls, yet it continues to be a taboo subject.

Across the world, millions of women and girls are ostracised during their monthly periods and some are banished to sleep alone in huts, to miss school and made to feel dirty and inferior. Menstrual bleeding isn’t dangerous or shameful. It’s completely normal. What is dangerous and shameful is the failure of governments around the world to challenge this prevailing gendered inequality, especially when it risks lives. Here in Scotland, we are fortunate that these extreme attitudes and customs are alien to us. Nonetheless, it is to our shame that menstruation is still discussed in hushed voices and that menstrual healthcare and hygiene is not embedded in our health and education systems.

Having a period is something which the vast majority of women and girls of reproductive age experience nearly every month. Access to sanitary products to absorb the flow of menstrual blood is essential for health, hygiene and full participation in daily life. Periods are unique to each individual and vary in terms of flow, duration and frequency. Some people will require to use fewer products than others but it is important that sanitary products are used safely and not used for longer than recommended.

Despite the importance of sanitary products to maintaining health, their availability and affordability is variable, and menstruation can cause financial and practical challenges.

Women and girls, at different times in their lives, may find it difficult to access or afford the sanitary products they need for a variety of reasons. They may have no money or income of their own and even when they do, many young people have told us sanitary products are not always easy to obtain within educational premises. In some schools, pupils who need sanitary products are required to ask a member of staff to provide them.

In general, low wages or a restriction of income, including through welfare sanctions, can make it very difficult to manage menstruation. Poverty inevitably leads to ‘period poverty.’ The indignity of period poverty was recently dramatized in the BAFTA award-winning film I, Daniel Blake in which, in a desperate scene, a young mother is seen shoplifting essential sanitary products. The choice between feeding your children or yourself and keeping yourself clean and healthy during menstruation is one which no woman should face. The solution is a political one.

Other circumstances which make menstruation a difficult experience include homelessness, coercive, controlling and violent relationships and health conditions such as endometriosis (affecting 1 in 10 women) which can cause extremely painful and heavy periods in some cases. Some trans people may also experience difficulties in accessing sanitary products.

Monica Lennon MSP
August 2017