Kate Bowen-Viner’s PhD focuses on the messages young people receive about menstruation. In this blog, she explains the menstrual equity movement, recent UK policy developments and argues that free period products are not the only solution to menstrual injustice.
After reports surfaced of UK school girls missing school due to period poverty, there have been numerous policy developments related to period product access. All schools in England now have access to free products and last month Scotland became the first country in the world to make free menstrual products universally available. These are positive improvements, but are free products the ultimate solution to menstrual inequity?
What is the menstrual equity movement?
The menstrual equity movement campaigns for improved access to period products (e.g. tampons and pads) and menstruation education. It challenges menstrual taboos and champions environmentally-friendly menstrual products.
Campaigners’ calls are a response to problems faced by many people in the UK today, including:
- Menstrual stigma.
- Plan International UK’s 2017 survey with a representative sample of 1,000 14-21-year-old UK girls found that 48% of girls were embarrassed by their periods.
- People in the UK struggling to afford period products.
- In the context of austerity and increased foodbank usage, in 2017, Plan International UK found that 1 in 7 girls (15%) aged 14-21-years-old had struggled to afford menstruation products.
In response to public pressure, Governments in the UK have taken steps to eradicate period poverty. Policy developments have often focussed on product access:
- In England, all state schools have been able to apply to receive free products for pupils since 2019. In the same year, the government also set up a period poverty task force. As well as these product-related policies, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) has been updated for the first time since 2000. The policy includes guidance on teaching about menstrual-wellbeing, but makes no explicit reference to tackling menstrual stigma.
- In 2018, Scotland made free period products available in schools, colleges and universities. Recently, the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill won unanimous support in its final stage. The legislation will make free products universally available.
- In Wales, schools are entitled to funding to make period products freely available to any pupil who needs them. Local councils also have access to funding to make products available to women through libraries and community hubs.
- In 2018, Derry and Strabane District became the first local authority in Northern Ireland to offer free products in some of its public buildings.
Benefits of free products
Free menstrual products can help to tackle some of the problems outlined above. Free products are useful to everyone who menstruates. Those who struggle to afford products will have improved access to them and will never be caught short. Improved access may help all women, girls and non-binary people who menstruate to feel less anxious about going to public spaces whilst on their period.
Free products potentially help to tackle menstrual stigma. Products in public spaces imply that just like free toilet paper and soap, period products are normal and should not be hidden. In turn, this may help more people to discuss periods openly.
Even so, period products are not the silver bullet in the fight for menstrual equity. The situation is more complex.
Over-relying on free products
Relying on free period products as the only solution to menstrual inequity could lead to issues.
Private corporations benefit from government contracts for period products and this could be problematic. Companies with government endorsements can market themselves as socially just. This can help them appeal to socially conscious, modern, consumers. They can paint the picture that they are playing an active role in solving menstruation-related social issues like period poverty or stigma. Companies can then distance themselves from their historical role in perpetuating, and profiting from, menstrual shame.
Furthermore, governments can distract attention from underlying and persistent wealth inequality. It would therefore be unwise to rely solely on private companies and their products to solve deep seated social issues.
Over-reliance on products could also distract attention away from other important menstrual equity issues, such as environmental problems caused by plastics in products and inadequate menstrual health provision.
Where do we go from here?
Rather than presenting products as the only answer to menstrual inequity, UK governments should be addressing the range of social problems related to menstruation.
Education is one area that has a vital role to play. Policy-makers should collaborate with teachers and young people to provide menstruation education that tackles stigma, improves young people’s understanding of menstruation and helps pupils to critically examine menstruation’s relationship with wider social issues (e.g. the environment, gender).
Free period products will be positive for many people and are worth celebrating. However, products will not end all menstruation-related social issues. Those working in social policy need to think critically about how to address menstrual inequity. Product access is just one piece of the puzzle.
Kate Bowen-Viner is a first year Social Policy PhD student at Bristol University. Her PhD focuses on how young people navigate messages about menstruation. Kate’s PhD supervisors are Professor Debbie Watson and Dr. Jon Symonds.
Kate has been working in the education sector since she left university. She has been a secondary school teacher, a Civil Servant (Department for Education) and a Senior Associate at the Centre for Education and Youth.
Kate has particular interests in education policy, gender and education, identity and education and qualitative methods.