No other area of school life relies on free samples or branded teaching resources to assist its pupils with their day-to-day lives. So why, when it comes to menstruation, have we ceded?
The Guardian reported last month that “girls from low-income families across England are struggling to afford sanitary protection, with many teachers buying tampons for their pupils or seeking help with supplies from charities and voluntary groups”.
This revelation is alarming, but consistent with the rising levels of child poverty in the country. But with our current, divisive Brexit fixation, the situation could deteriorate further.
It’s no wonder mental health is on the rise in Britain – to add this extra burden onto young girls at such a sensitive time of the month is abhorrent. At a time where we should be encouraging and empowering girls, they are languishing at home, negating their education at a pivotal stage in their academic career.
Funding for schools is at breaking point, with cuts to mental health services and teacher redundancies on the rise, this altruistic approach to these girls will be placed even further in jeopardy.
Freedom4Girls, a charity which campaigns to empower and change the lives of girls around the world, were contacted by a school in Leeds after they became concerned about teenage girls’ attendance.
We interviewed Tina Leslie, Project Coordinator at Freedom4Girls, who told us that the charity has to assess whether it now needs to target British girls alongside the thousands of teenagers it has already helped in Kenya.
Ms Leslie said: “We’re working across schools to see how many girls are in need, because we know there’s a problem and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“The problem has only come to light in the past few weeks. But, if there were two girls in a very small high school that have been brought to my attention, I can imagine this problem is much more widespread than people think.
“This issue is something you don’t think about until somebody tells you. It is linked to poverty. There were 25,000 visits to food banks in Leeds alone last year. So, if you’re at crisis point you go to a food bank and, like in Kenya, if you can’t afford food you can’t afford sanitary protection.
“We know in other countries, but why don’t we do it more here? Because nobody thinks it’s happening here, but it is.”
Campaigners are now urging the government to consider providing sanitary products on prescription to girls from low-income families who qualify for free school meals through the pupil premium.
Donating free tampons to schools is a nice idea, but this seems like a short-term solution that benefits corporations as much as it helps girls, if not more so.
Long-term resolutions need to be worked on to remove the menstrual taboo, and to create actionable solutions, such as improving menstruation education and removing branding from school resources, and eradication of the period taboo is a good place to start.
Ms Leslie said one way in which schools can help girls affected by this problem is for “teachers to have collections to put in girls’ toilets, and to talk to girls about their periods and how they cope with them”.
She also added that it would be prudent for schools to “spot any attendance/truancy patterns”, and to address these in any way they can.
It’s clear that we can’t just throw tampons at the problem forever and hope it will go away. Now that sex and relationship education has finally been made compulsory, we actually have the opportunity now to change things and make them stick.
We need to stop leaving lesson plans to companies that are in any way linked to the menstrual product industry. There is marketing research and projection reports up to 2020 telling the industry that they need to solicit schools to gain young, brand-loyal customers – the shocking part? That advice hasn’t been altered in a century.
No other school subject relies on free samples or branded teaching resources in order to educate their pupils, so why do we allow this to happen when it comes to menstruation?
Ms Leslie said: “Why is there not a wider choice available for women, such as mooncups and reusables? The environmental impact of disposables is that it can take up to 800 years to decompose.
“We need to break the stigma and discrimination and give girls their dignity back.”
Most young girls in Britain aren’t even aware that there is an alternative to sanitary towels and tampons, due to the vast amounts of money on offer through sponsorship of educational content and giving schools ‘freebies’ in a bid to gain the “brand-loyalty” that has given them such a lucrative turn over.
Ms Leslie has launched a crowdfunding page to raise money for research into the scale of the issue in the UK, and is encouraging researching bodies to come forward to carry out a comprehensive nation-wide study on the issue.
*Disclaimer: The views represented in this article are the views of the author and do not represent the views of TheSchoolBus