How period poverty in the UK is preventing girls from going to school

Watch Absent, a short film tackling the shame and ignorance surrounding menstruation

“I had no idea what it was when it started. I thought I was sick,” remembers Ellie* of her first period at 10-years-old. She was yet to have a conversation with her mother about menstruation, and it wasn’t something taught in her school in Leeds. “My mum couldn’t give me any products because she didn’t get paid until the Friday, and it was a Tuesday,” she recalls in our conversation.

For Ellie, this meant resorting to a sock wrapped in toilet roll for the first night, until the next day at school, when she informed a teacher who subsequently took her to the nurse. The nurse was able to give a limited supply of pads: “I used one a day until my mum could buy more.”

It’s a story that’s acutely familiar to millions of girls who have experienced period poverty across the globe. In the UK, the issue is scarcely talked about, but astoundingly widespread: one in 10 girls between the ages of 14 and 21 in the UK have been unable to afford sanitary products, while 49 per cent have missed an entire day of school because of their period.

Earlier this year, the government pledged two million pounds £2 million towards ending period poverty globally, and vowed to make menstrual products available for all school children in England by September – a promise the Torys have failed to live up to. Beyond the government’s hollow commitments, a number of charities have pointed out that far more must be done to dispel the shame and ignorance surrounding the issue, with 48 per cent of girls in the UK saying they feel embarrassed by their periods.

Absent is a short film produced by Dog Eat Dog based on multiple true stories which gives a frank portrayal of the awkwardness, sensitivity and often humiliation that characterises many early experiences of menstruation. Through a series of quotidian but emotionally charged moments, the film follows the story of a young girl, Chloe, who, sitting on a school bus, is made aware of a stain on her clothing by another boy which, much to the amusement of his friends, leaves her visibly mortified.

“I truly believe if men menstruated we would not be having this conversation” – Libby Burke Wilde, Absent director

The film cuts back to the morning which led to this moment, where Chloe is seen searching through her room for sanitary products to no avail. She’s interrupted by her mother, who says she can’t afford this “luxury item” for them both, despite working all the hours she can. Locking herself in the bathroom, Chloe is faced with a familiar choice: making use of toilet paper, or being absent from school again.

“(Period poverty) is impacting children’s education and sets back young girls before they are even given a chance”, says Libby Burke Wilde, director of Absent. Burke Wilde wanted the film to emphasise that the issue is “on our doorstep”, and to make people realise that for some families in the UK struggling to heat their homes or feed themselves, two pounds a month for a box of tampons is simply not an option.

The film looks to dissolve the stigma around periods, in showing that: “it’s not dirty, it’s not shameful, it’s natural and it’s important for people not to shy away from the discussion”.

At the crux of any conversation of period poverty is the systemic avoidance of women’s rights. “I truly believe if men menstruated we would not be having this conversation”, says Burke Wilde. The inclusion of a sympathetic male figure in Absence reflects the importance of engaging both genders: “Periods need to stop being a ‘women’s issue’”, she explains. This means ensuring that menstrual products are as freely available as toilet roll, and making it the duty of employers to support their female employees. 

At the forefront of the campaign to make period products a human right is Freedom4Girls. The charity was founded in 2016 by Tina Leslie, who – after working at a women’s organisation in Kenya and seeing the extent of period poverty there – turned her attention to tackling the issue in the UK. Freedom4Girls has since spearheaded a myriad of initiatives, among them organising donations to schools, partaking in the government’s Period Poverty task force, and delivering education sessions around the country. 

Victoria Abrahams, a spokesperson for Freedom4Girls, affirms that period poverty is inextricable from capitalist and patriarchal systems “that do not have either women's needs or the impoverished at the heart of their business”, and are bound up with an idea that “(women) should present as always glossed over, never in our natural forms, menstruation included.”

It’s a narrative which runs deep, and one reflected in our very language: “Women’s periods have been commoditised so much such that we have been conditioned to refer to our menstrual health products as ‘sanitary products’”, Abrahams says.

Films like Absent are vital in transforming this narrative, by addressing the way we perceive period poverty, and shedding light on austerity’s less-spoken about but similarly devastating ripple effects. Things are gradually changing, with positive steps being taken – whether it’s Apple introducing a period emoji, CBD tampons, or reformed sex education which will see period health taught in schools by 2020. Destroying an archaic taboo simply starts with opening up the conversation.

Beyond this, to address the decade of austerity that has led to period poverty, we must make our voices heard in the next election by registering to vote.

Watch Absent above.