Last week, Justine Greening MP, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, stated that period poverty was the responsibility of schools and parents. As a period poverty activist I was infuriated by this statement and the lack of knowledge which underpinned it.
So, when I attended the UK’s first period conference two days later, I thought it would be a great idea to share my learning with Justine Greening. Below are a list of the key takeaways from the conference so everyone, including the UK Minister for Women and Equalities, can understand how we can improve the lives of those who menstruate:
1. Period poverty is a reality
The conference brought together organisations from all over the UK to share their experiences of period poverty and period taboos, and to develop a manifesto to tackle these issues.
I met with organisations from a number of sectors, and almost every part of the UK. Their experiences of working to alleviate period poverty are enough evidence that it exists.
During the conference, Hannah from Period Potential shared her experience of period poverty. She told her heartbreaking story of growing up without lack of access to products. She said that sometimes she “would save money for sanitary products instead of eating”.
Hannah’s story is not unique. According to Precious Stars 57% of people have used toilet roll or something else to absorb their blood whilst on their period. And, Plan UK’s research showed that 16% of girls’ families in their survey struggled to afford sanitary items.
2. Period poverty is about more than unaffordable products
If we are going to tackle period poverty we need to tackle the bigger picture. Period poverty isn’t just about being unable to afford products, it’s also a deep rooted societal issue. It’s the ingrained taboos and stigma which stop people from asking for help.
We need to create an honest and open culture around menstruation, so that people feel comfortable to speak out about their experiences. In doing so we need to be explicit in our conversations about periods and not be ashamed by our natural bodily process.
3. We need to reform the UK education system
We need to completely reform the way we teach sexual education in UK schools because the current curriculum reinforces menstrual taboos and stigma.
Boys and girls are separated from the moment they begin sex education. This needs to change. Menstruation is a bodily process that both sexes need to understand in order to eradicate the idea that periods are unclean.
Period product brands play too large a role in the education system. Pupils are being advertised to rather than educated. These are the brands that made us believe periods are blue, and that we’re unclean during menstruation. We need an open dialogue which includes reusable products, and doesn’t exclude pupils by focusing on expensive name-brand products.
4. We need to understand menstruation better
Sally King, from Menstrual Matters, shared her experience in which her PMS vomiting was misdiagnosed as anxiety because there wasn’t enough research on how menstruation affects the body.
There’s a huge data gap. Due to many social, economic and political factors there is an inadequate diagnosis process to differentiate between health issues and those heightened or, caused by the menstrual cycle. There needs to be more medical and scientific research into how menstruation affects our bodies.
There has also been no national or regional survey about period poverty. And, that means we have no idea what the extent of the issue is, or who is tackling it. We need to work together to commission research, so we have hard evidence to lobby the government with.
5. We need to be more inclusive
There is a need to understand menstruation beyond the lens of a white, able-bodied cis-female. Menstruation intersects culture, sexuality, disabilities and religion. Therefore we must work to acknowledge the differences in people’s experiences of menstruation.
As, Mandu Reid from the Cup Effect noted, “making assumptions is one of the most dangerous things we can do”. It is important that we ask individuals how they need to be supported, and work with them to change the lives of their communities.
Saturday’s event focused on breaking the barriers of menstruation, and it did just that. Whilst Justine Greening may be able to overlook the issues of period poverty and period education, the menstrual queens I met at the conference will not. This marks the beginning of a national effort to change the way we view periods, reduce shame and tackle period poverty once and for all.
POWER TO THE PERIODS!