The pandemic has exacerbated the horrors of period poverty; the free period products scheme must be made mandatory
By making the Free Periods scheme mandatory, we can ensure that period poverty is consigned to history and no child will ever be touched by its injustice.
In the last six months I’ve been gripped by a foreboding panic as I open my emails every morning. Interspersed between emails from my university supervisor about my upcoming weekly essay, from my mum keen to share an article she’d read the night before and the ubiquitous emails persuading me to give online shopping a try, I will inevitably be met with at least one from a student who is desperate for help, who cannot afford to manage their period.
As the stark chaos of the pandemic permeates through society, and with inequality deepening, I’ve found it particularly harrowing to read about its effects on the physical and mental well-being of children. As the founder of Free Periods, the organisation fighting to end period poverty in schools, it’s undeniable that the pandemic has dialled back much of the progress made on eradicating this particular inequality.
The mass closure of schools across the country has seen pupils with the most need for free period products lose access to their main supply. At a time when the financial fallout from Covid-19 has pushed families already at the sharp end of poverty into further financial turbulence, period poverty will continue to have a devastating impact on the trajectory of a young person’s life.
But today, as pupils return to familiar classrooms across the country, we will encounter a new opportunity to make things better for them and to advance period equity in our society.
I started Free Periods from my bedroom when I was at school, angered by the injustice of period poverty and determined to speak on behalf of those who couldn’t. As an organisation fighting for change, we campaigned ardently for almost three years for funding for free period products in schools, and we celebrated as this became a reality in January 2020. Teachers praised the scheme, telling us about the students who would thank them personally, often with tears of gratitude. For them, the scheme had been nothing but life-changing.
But after the initial euphoria, the roll-out of the government scheme and the periodic analysis of its uptake has been depressing, and it’s clear that we need to do more. By the end of 2020, less than half the total spend cap for schools and colleges had been used, and we have learnt that only half of all schools have signed up for free period products, leaving thousands of pupils, often those in more deprived areas, at a major disadvantage.
It is chilling to hear a child tell us they can’t ask their parents for money for pads when they already know there isn’t enough for food or heating
At Free Periods, we’ve studied the reasons why, and have been stunned at the overwhelming lack of awareness about the scheme in countless schools across England. Our attempt to counter this through various campaigns, urging every school to sign up, has made some impact but the truth is that the nature of the scheme itself needs to be revisited and made mandatory, rather than opt-in, across all eligible schools.
We must not deny a child their right to education but we know that period poverty does just that – it disenfranchises and disempowers, an unforgiving reflection of a society ridden with gendered inequalities.
It is chilling to hear a child tell us they can’t ask their parents for money for pads when they already know there isn’t enough for food or heating. A mandatory scheme would mean that no child is left behind, that it doesn’t fall to chance whether a child goes to a school that’s opted in, or hasn’t yet got round to it.
I truly hope that the free period product scheme will be integrated into the government’s post-Covid recovery response. And in ensuring that this scheme is mandatory, and enshrined in legislation, we can ensure that period poverty is consigned to history and no child will ever be touched by its injustice.
Amika George is an anti-poverty activist.