Two years ago, a story was reported that led to a national outcry: period products bound for Kenya were diverted to Leeds after schools discovered that students were routinely missing school because they were unable to afford menstrual products.
It was expected that the government would be compelled to take immediate and decisive action, perhaps by funding free provision of menstrual products in schools. No response came, and the silence from Westminster on the subject of period poverty has been hard to ignore.
Today, Philip Hammond has announced as part of his Spring Statement that the government will fund free menstrual products in all secondary schools and colleges. As the founder of #FreePeriods, a campaign I started from my bedroom when I was 17 which calls for free pads and tampons to be available in all schools, I think this is a hugely important and significant pledge.
Full provision will ensure that no teenager will have to compromise their education because of their sex. As austerity cuts bite, those children at the sharp end of poverty have been the hardest hit, and when families are reliant on food banks to feed their children, providing a packet of tampons for their daughters can often fall to the bottom of the list of priorities.
A survey by Plan International in 2017 revealed that one in 10 young women had not been able to afford menstrual products and 12 per cent had to improvise because of their prohibitive cost. With the Trussell Trust reporting record levels of food bank use, this situation is likely to become more common.
Scotland recently made history by becoming the first country in the world to provide universal access to menstrual products in all its schools, colleges and universities. Such pioneering approaches to alleviate period poverty signified a pivotal moment in the fight for menstrual equity and I applaud any initiative from this side of the border that seeks to mirror the Scottish example.
However, although we are glad to see the government at last taking responsibility for this issue, I would urge the chancellor to do more. We need this scheme to be extended to all children in full-time compulsory education, including primary schools, so that every child can access their education regardless of their age.
We know that girls are starting their period at a younger age, and to exclude girls at primary school age from participating fully in their core education is grossly unfair and misguided. We need to see a coherent and consistent policy that covers all children in education so that there are no barriers to participation.
We will be demanding that this funding is ringfenced specifically for this purpose, with no expectation that it will come from school budgets. We know that schools across the country are facing a critical funding crisis, with many in deficit and some at risk of closing down entirely. The scheme must be long term, sustainable and enshrined in legislation, and we call for all political parties to support the pledge and oversee its implementation.
Periods should not be holding any girl back, and her potential as an individual should never be undermined because of them. Our government has an opportunity to end period poverty, and allow all children access to education without any gaps in their learning. Every child deserves the education they are entitled to, unencumbered by their sex or by their families’ income. For the first time in England, we may see that become a reality, and it’s about time.
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