Period Problems: Is the UK Doing Enough to Combat Period Poverty and Provide Menstrual Leave?
What is Period Poverty?
A person is in period poverty when they cannot access sanitary products as a result of their financial situation. It is a global issue, affecting millions of women worldwide. It is present in the United Kingdom, especially among certain groups of people and in deprived areas. Those particularly affected include people in low income employment, refugees and homeless people.
Plan International UK is a charity who research girls’ experience of menstruation in the UK. In 2017, the organisation found that 1 in 10 girls had been unable to afford sanitary products and 1 in 7 had to ask to borrow sanitary items from friends due to affordability issues. As well as cost, Plan International suggests that period poverty has two more levels to it: a lack of education around menstrual health and the shame and taboo associated with menstruation.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused financial strain for many people which led to a sharp rise in the number of people relying on food banks for necessities including sanitary products. In the near future, it is likely that period poverty will continue to be a pressing issue for many people as the cost of living continues to rise in the UK.
The primary effects of period poverty include not being able to afford suitable products. But there are also secondary consequences; period poverty can impact attendance at school and work. For instance, Plan UK found that over 137,000 children across the UK missed school days as a result of period poverty. In 2017, Nursing Standard reported it was increasingly common for school nurses to purchase sanitary products to keep students in school.
Inadequate supply of appropriate products and education surrounding their use may also lead to poor hygiene and increase the risk of developing serious bacterial infections such as Toxic Shock Syndrome. Plan International reports that 27 percent of girls in the UK have overused a sanitary product because they could not afford a fresh one.
Legislation in the UK
Prior to 2021, there was a luxury tax attached to period products, dubbed the “tampon tax.” This was a 5 percent tax mandated by the European Union VAT Directive. At the start of 2021, the UK Government abolished the tax as a result of pressure from multiple campaigns and petitions. This was made possible because Brexit meant the UK was no longer a Member State of the EU and therefore no longer had to abide by EU laws. Other government action at this time aimed to get free sanitary products in English primary and secondary schools as well as National Health Service hospitals.
Schools and colleges in Scotland have been providing free products since 2018. But in 2020 legislation was enacted to take this further with Scotland becoming the first country in the world to make sanitary products free for all. The Period Products (Free Provision) Act 2021 stipulates a legal duty for local authorities and education providers to make free period products available to anyone who needs them. This act is expected to be in force by 2023.
Even the distribution of free products was disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown as women and girls were no longer in education facilities. This highlights a flaw of the current policies to provide free products in schools: products are not accessible to those not in education. This issue of accessibility ought to be addressed as those not in education are also likely to coincide with those with low income or living in deprived areas who are already at increased risk of period poverty.
In May this year, a new draft bill was introduced in Spain which awards women three days of medical leave from work per month for period pain. If the legislation passes it will be the first of its kind in Europe. This new concept of "menstrual leave" has the potential to provide support to a significant portion of the workforce: a YouGov poll in 2016 found that more than half of those surveyed said period pain interferes with their jobs and only 27 percent felt comfortable telling their boss what was wrong. This policy will particularly benefit women who have chronic conditions like endometriosis, PCOS and adenomyosis which often cause debilitating pain.
Such a law has been advocated for by UK charities including Endometriosis UK and Bloody Good Period. They recognise the potential for this move to help address the stigma and shame which surrounds menstruation which ought to be recognised as a normal biological process.
There are some countries that already offer menstrual leave including Japan and Indonesia as well as a province in China but most do not offer paid leave. Currently, in the UK, time off of work for period pain must come out of sick leave.
Discussion around Menstrual Leave
One worry associated with the concept of menstrual leave is that it may be exploited for regular days off work. This issue was raised in 2021 when the CEO of a South Korean airline was fined for refusing menstrual leave to several employees despite policies which entitled them to a day off a month. He argued they did not provide proof of menstruation but lower and higher courts ruled against him, stating that the request to provide proof could infringe upon their privacy and human rights.
On the other hand, many argue there is not enough incentive for women to take leave for menstrual pain. Many women do not want to fall behind on work and have to catch up and several also worry that regular days off might disadvantage their professional development.
Also, in some countries that have menstrual leave, some report perceptions of weakness as reasons for low take-up. There is criticism that such policies are too protective of women and that they could result in female employees being seen as weak or lazy. This may have the effect of exacerbating the stigma around menstruation rather than challenging it. Some critics speculate whether it may reinforce negative stereotypes of women workers and even discourage employers from hiring them.