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Thousands of women and girls are struggling to access period products during lockdown, charities have warned, with period poverty affecting some people for the first time due to the economic strain of coronavirus.
Tina Leslie, founder of Leeds-based charity Freedom4girls, tells HuffPost UK the charity has given out more than 4,500 packs of period products in the past two months. They would usually expect to deliver around 500 packs per month.
And Gabby Edlin, founder of the London-based charity Bloody Good Period, says demand in the capital has “at least doubled, if not tripled”. The charity was giving out around 5,000 packs per month before lockdown, but has distributed more than 20,000 packs since lockdown began, equating to more than 200,000 individual products.
“It’s a massive issue,” says Leslie. “The problem of period poverty has not gone away during lockdown. In fact, Covid-19 has exacerbated the issue.”
There are several reasons why demand has increased. Firstly, families across the UK are more likely to be struggling financially during lockdown – some women have told Leslie and Edlin they’re experiencing period poverty for the first time.
But also, many charities, drop-in centres and food banks that usually provide period products have closed, so women who rely on them may be contacting the few charities still operating. Or, with the current government advice to avoid public transport, some may not to be able to travel to access period supplies.
“We spoke to one woman with endometriosis, which causes very heavy bleeding, who normally accesses all her period products from a food bank but she isn’t able to access that now,” says Edlin.
At the same time, period poverty charities are struggling with supplies, too. “Donation stations” in supermarkets, pharmacies and workplaces have largely closed over hygiene concerns related to the virus, and these are a major source of stock for them. “We had a couple of big donations from Bodyform and Hey Girls to keep us going, but at one point we were thinking ‘oh my gosh, we’re going to run out because we’re giving out so many,’” says Leslie.
Schools are also closed and since January, they’ve become a major access point for girls who need free period products. Schools can still order menstruation products via the government scheme to support vulnerable pupils, and girls are allowed to go into schools to pick them up. But there seems to be a communication breakdown around this process, says Amika George, founder of the Free Periods movement, which campaigned for the initiative.
“Many girls tell me they weren’t aware they could do this,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Free Periods are publicising as much as we can but we need the government to shout about it much, much more. Children are going without, and at a time of stress and anxiety, not having access to pads or tampons when they need them will only make their situation far, far worse.”
Leslie says schools seem to be equally confused about the scheme; several have contacted her asking for pad donations from the charity, instead of ordering government-funded products. She has facilitated donations for those in immediate need where possible, but instructed schools how to access the government scheme, so the charity’s stock can be used elsewhere.
Being unable to access period products can have “a long-lasting impact on the trajectory of a girl’s life”, says George. “It affects their ability to learn and have an equal footing in education as their male counterparts, it affects their ability to pass exams, to secure their first job, it affects their confidence and sense of self-worth,” she says.
And because of the taboo surrounding menstruation, George is concerned girls simply will not ask teachers for support during this time.
But teens aren’t the only ones affected. Leslie points out that the majority of people adversely impacted by period poverty – and the people who need support – are adults. “The government did their thing for girls, but there’s a lot more people who menstruate from the ages of 18-50 than there is from 11-18,” she says.
Freedom4girls is working alongside homelessness charities to provide pads for rough sleepers housed in hotels. But it’s the “hidden vulnerable” in society Leslie is most concerned about.
“It’s communities with English as a second language, or refugees and asylum seekers who maybe haven’t got any recourse to funds who were struggling anyway,” she says. “Also, newly unemployed people who have lost their jobs, who were perhaps on zero hours contracts before lockdown.”
Universal credit applications skyrocketed when lockdown began, but Leslie says it usually takes around five weeks for money to come through, leaving many families without funds for food, let alone period products. “I support one of the local food banks where we give out period products and we usually have 20-25 people coming to us a week,” she says. “Now, it’s 100 a week.”
“People were buying period products like they were buying toilet paper.”
Women on tight budgets may have also been impacted by stockpiling at the start of lockdown. “People were buying period products like they were buying toilet paper,” says Leslie, “so at one point there was hardly any product on the shelves. When people were going to buy them, there were only the expensive ones left.”
With drop-in centres largely closed, Leslie and Edlin have had to change the way they distribute period products. Bloody Good Period’s storage facility in Alexandra Palace is still open, but women need to book an appointment to visit and use the “take what you need” scheme to prevent overcrowding.
Edlin has also been working alongside The Refugee Council, who provide the addresses of people who need products, so they can be delivered an individual parcel. Leslie has teamed up with other third sector groups to identify women in need in Leeds and arrange socially distanced pick-ups and deliveries.
Some local schools have established their own food banks for vulnerable families, adds Leslie, creating “essentials parcels” including period products for both parents and pupils. But without visible locations to access free products in the community, Leslie is concerned those most in need may be unaware of how to access help.
So, what can we do to help? If you’re unable to physically donate products to a local food bank, Leslie and Edlin say donating funds will help small charities like theirs continue to operate.
Leslie also wants to encourage community volunteers to lead conversations around menstruation, as some people may not feel comfortable asking for products. “If someone says ‘I need food’ or you think they need food, ask them what else they need,” she says. “People need to be asking that question.”
Edlin wants the government to do more to help women impacted by period poverty. Post-lockdown, it should become the norm to see free pads and tampons readily available, she says. “It has to be available to people who need it at any point, in the way condoms are in GP surgeries and sexual health clinics – or even the way toilet paper is in any business or any public place.
“Period products need to be considered in the same vain, because it’s impossible to go about your life if you’re on your period and you don’t have the products that you need.”
“It’s not about kindness or generosity... it’s about what women and people who menstruate need.”
One silver lining, Edlin believes, is that the empty shelves and stories of supply shortages in hospitals may have made the public more aware of how essential these products are – and how devastating period poverty can be.
She hopes lockdown “has made people feel more human to each other”, meaning we’ll not only be quicker to provide help, but also more open to asking for it if we’re in need.
But, she points out, the burden shouldn’t be on small charities or individuals to pay for access to essential health items.
“It’s not about kindness or generosity, it’s about the absolute very basic of what women and people who menstruate need,” she says, “and it’s been ignored for so, so long.”