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Period poverty in the UK: 1 in 5 young girls are being bullied at school, here’s how you can help

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Megan Murray
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New research by Plan International UK has shown the shocking number of girls still missing school due to period shame and period poverty

The way our society deals with menstruation has long been unacceptable, but new research from Plan International UK has shown just how archaic behaviour towards periods and the young women having them still is.

In a poll of 1,000 girls aged 14 to 21, 20% said that they had experienced “bullying or teasing” due to their period, with 67% of this behaviour happening in school.

Further to this, girls are actually missing school because they’re menstruating, with 66% reporting that they have missed part of or a full day of school because they have worries about leaking, anxiety around people finding out or general embarrassment. 

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And it’s easy to see why. Plan International UK asked the girls what kind of comments they receive when other pupils find out they are menstruating, and the themes that emerged are heart breaking.

Simply because their body’s reproductive systems are functioning naturally, six out of 10 girls have experienced comments about being “dirty or disgusting,” been made to feel ashamed, been taunted about a mood change, received comments about leaking or teased about wearing sanitary products.

The issue is two-fold. Not only do we need better education around menstruation in schools to break down the taboo surrounding the subject, and to include boys and men in the conversation. But we need to better address period poverty and the fact that there’s still a luxury tax on sanitary products in the UK, which is stopping some girls accessing the proper equipment they need to feel confident and secure.

We spoke to the founder of Everyday Sexism Laura Bates last year who explained the problem perfectly: “I think menstruation is an area that’s seen as taboo and stigmatised. I don’t think schools are doing a good job at all of opening up the subject and making girls feel able to discuss it. I think that’s a particular problem given the recent revelations about the scale of period poverty in the UK. We’re very quick to think of period poverty as a developing world problem, but in reality, we also have to face the fact that there are girls in the UK who are missing school because they don’t have access to sanitary supplies.

“If we continue to stigmatise the discussion of menstruation in our schools then how are girls ever going to feel able to reach out for support or discuss what’s going on? It just compounds the problem and makes it even worse.”

Although there’s much to be done, in this year’s Spring Statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that he was committed to ending period poverty in our schools, and will fund the provision of free period products in secondary schools and colleges across England from next year.

The Welsh government also recently announced an encouraging scheme for tackling period poverty in schools, pledging to start funding the £2.3m scheme with immediate effect, providing more than 141,000 girls with free tampons, sanitary pads and other menstrual hygiene products.

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As far as the tampon tax is concerned we still have a way to go with the government predicting 2020 as the year that the 5% tax will be removed, although this may change depending on Brexit.

But although these are all positive steps, education and stigma are still a huge part of why so many girls in the UK are missing school, and a lot of it has to do with the way men perceive periods.

It’s something that is evident in later life. A Twitter thread that went viral just a few weeks ago exposed that one man didn’t think periods could even happen at night – much to the amusement of the women on social media – showing how dire the need is for better education. 

And although men in the office (hopefully) aren’t commenting on their co-workers periods, the stigma we feel at school carries on to our workplace environments, with a survey of 2,000 women carried out by CIPD training specialist DPG revealing that 60% feel unable to discuss menstruation at all with their colleagues or managers and in male-dominated workspaces, 75% of menstruators feel completely unable to address or discuss this bodily function at work.

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What can we do?

Although it can feel daunting to try and make a change to an issue this huge, there are lots of things you can do to if you want to. Earlier this year we spoke to Amika George who started the #FreePeriods movement in April 2017, when she was just 17 years old after reading a news story claiming one in 10 girls were struggling to afford pads and tampons. She gave us some brilliant advice on speaking to those around you and engaging your local community to change the narrative around period shame, and raising money to aid period poverty. 

If fundraising is something you’re passionate about, you could gather period supplies to post to Beauty Banks who distribute them to those who need them most, or work with Bloody Good Period to set up a fundraiser or pad collection. 

We also want to make sure the government don’t forget about their tampon tax promises, so to keep conversations about periods and tampon tax alive until 2022, and remind the government that we’re keeping an eye on the situation, you can continue to read about period-related issues, tweet, campaign, sign petitions and spread that knowledge to those around you. 

Images: Getty 

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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