Freedom4Girls are a small, volunteer-led charity based in Leeds. We support disadvantaged women and girls across West Yorkshire with their menstrual health needs.
We started our work in 2016 with a project in Kenya. Here we delivered washable, reusable cloth pads to women and girls who couldn’t afford the popular, disposable products. We never thought that on returning to Leeds and talking about our work we would be flooded with stories of how girls and young women across the UK were choosing to miss school, staying home during their periods rather than risk being in the classroom because they were using toilet roll instead of period products.
What is period poverty?
When Freedom4Girls started, we focused on ensuring that people who couldn’t afford period products themselves were able to access free products from the donations we’d collected. We distributed these products to anyone who needed them; schools, the economically vulnerable who were relying on foodbanks, homeless women, refugee and asylum-seeking women without any access to funds and many more.
It took us a while to convince the relevant people that period poverty was a real and prevalent issue, with doors shut in our faces and the common response, ‘but a pack of pads costs 80p.’ The reality was though that a number of people accessing foodbanks was at an all-time high and, according to the Joseph Roundtree Foundation, the number of children living in poverty in 2017 was 4 million.
If we also look at the definition of period poverty borne out of Plan International’s 2017 report Break the Barriers, we can see that affordability is just one of three causes, where the other two relate to the societal wide stigmas, shame and taboos associated with periods, combined with the lack of quality, confidence-building education on the subject.
There really is a lot of work to do in terms of ensuring women, girls and people who menstruate are safely and comfortably managing their periods.
As we’re all now well aware, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted every aspect of our lives: the daily commute instead consisted of a walk to our couches; the pub quiz is over zoom; and endless loaves of banana bread flooded our Instagram feeds. While many of us savour the ability to spend all day in PJs, relishing no excuse needed to binge Tiger King, there are people for whom this lockdown is not a break, it’s breaking them.
The harsh realities that Freedom4Girls have seen from existing beneficiaries over the last four years are now coming from a new group of economically vulnerable people who’ve lost their income, been furloughed, awaiting government welfare, with no clear prospects of what to do next.
With the work that we do directly with foodbanks, we’re seeing a serious increase in numbers and issues that are affecting this group of vulnerable people.
If we look at our donations, in 2018-2019, we were delivering roughly
300-500 packs of pads or tampons a month. During lockdown alone we’ve seen these numbers increase significantly, delivering over 7,000 packs between March and June and 4,000 individual products.
According to their survey published in May, Plan International UK revealed that three in every ten girls are now unable to afford period products. A staggering number of those experiencing their periods had to use makeshift options due to lower household incomes; 54% of young women have been using toilet paper, which in itself has significant health complications. There are many going without as they are isolating away from friends, colleagues and clinics that were previously their only options.
Furthermore, even before lockdown started, stockpiling drove up menstrual product prices and reduced accessibility. The panic and entitlement of our commercially driven culture caused and is still causing more and more people to go without daily necessities. Menstrual products are daily necessities. Would you expect people to without toilet paper? No, so why do we expect women to go without period products?
Members of the public are sewing reusable pads from home and donating them to people in need. After stock-piling was no longer widespread, shelters, banks and charities began to receive more donations of period products. iNewsreports that the menstrual product suppliers to our nation’s schools (PHS direct), will continue delivering to schools. Individually, schools are supporting their students such as The City Academy Bristol who handed out free pads before the lockdown was imposed. They are continuing to deliver them alongside the free school meals parcels received by those in need.
Every day we are working hard to ensure that the people our charity was designed to support are aware of where they can access help and our commitment to those experiencing period poverty will continue long after the pandemic ends.
Imagine if, on top of everything else going on right now, you got your period and didn’t have a pad or even toilet roll to help…..
Victoria Abrahams, Operations Manager & Olivia Hall, Student Placement, Freedom4Girls,
 An increase from the original 1 in 10 from the 2017 Break the Barriers report.