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Girls coronavirus lockdown
Photography Mansur Omar, via Unsplash

From period poverty to harassment, young women and girls suffer in lockdown

New research reveals how the coronavirus crisis has also worsened womens’ mental health and reduced access to contraception in the UK

In the last two months, life in the UK has become unrecognisable – a government-enforced lockdown means the public must stay at home except for essential shopping or exercise, cutting people off from their families and social circles. Now, a new report has revealed the extent to which these measures are exacerbating problems for girls, including period poverty, harassment, and more.

According to a Plan International UK survey of over 1,000 young women aged 14 to 21, 40 per cent of girls feel their mental health has worsened during lockdown, 30 per cent have had issues affording or accessing period products, 10 per cent have been unable to get hold of their usual form of contraception, and 19 per cent have experienced public sexual harassment.

“We know that health crises have a disproportionate effect on girls,” Rose Caldwell, Plan International UK’s CEO, tells Dazed. “We are already seeing this pattern in the UK, with increased reports of violence against women and girls, increased unpaid care work (shouldered by women), exacerbated economic gender inequality, reduced access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, and gendered mental health issues.” 

Girls across the UK were “already facing huge barriers to their rights”, continues Caldwell, which is no different in the current pandemic. “Girls’ voices and experiences have been excluded from decision-making and debate, including in wider discussions about gender inequality, which tend to focus on the impact on adult women.”

Caldwell says that lockdown has particularly “exacerbated the already prevalent problem of period poverty in the UK”, which is contributed to by a ‘toxic trio’ of issues, including “the cost of products, a lack of education about periods, and the shame and stigma surrounding menstruation”.

Since the UK went into lockdown on March 23, a third of girls have been unable to get hold of sanitary products. 30 per cent have had difficulty either affording or accessing products, with over half of them using toilet roll as an alternative. However, due to the pre-lockdown spree of panic buying, many girls weren’t even able to access toilet roll, with 20 per cent saying this directly impacted the management of their periods.

“We could never imagine that schools would be closed, but now we must find a quick solution to increase access to period products” – Rose Caldwell, Plan International UK

Research conducted in May 2019 found that schoolgirls miss an average of three days per term due to period-related issues – more than for a cold, flu, holidays, or truancy. The UK government has since taken steps to tackle period poverty, making free sanitary products available to schools across England, while in February, Scotland became the first country in the world to make menstrual items free for anyone who needs them. However, with schools closed during lockdown, 30 per cent of girls don’t know who to ask to get hold of free products.

“The strong progress made on tackling period poverty across the UK in the past year must not be undone,” urges Caldwell. “We could never imagine that schools would be closed, but now we must find a quick solution to increase access to period products while the free schemes in schools have been severely disrupted.” Caldwell advises that girls check in with their schools or local food banks if they are in need of free sanitary products.

As well as exacerbating period poverty, lockdown has had a detrimental impact on young womens’ mental health. Social media has been cited as one reason for dwindling mental wellbeing (37 per cent), with 25 per cent of girls saying they have experienced at least one form of abuse, bullying, or sexual harassment online during lockdown. Education has also played a role, with many girls attributing their mental health deterioration to not being able to attend school (41 per cent), feeling like they don’t have a purpose (43 per cent), and worrying about not sitting exams (30 per cent). 66 per cent also said they were learning less during lockdown.

17-year-old Indya from Eastbourne says she’s concerned about the pandemic’s impact on her future studies. “I’m in year 12,” she says, “and there’s a lot of confusion because we are meant to be looking at universities this summer. A lot of open days have been cancelled, and so have our exams. I miss the physical support you feel being surrounded by teachers and students, but have been trying to take everything one day at a time.”

Manchester-based Atlanta is particularly struggling with her mental health and sense of reality during lockdown. “Right now, I feel like I am living through someone else’s lens,” the 18-year-old explains, “like I’m watching a movie but from someone else’s perspective. Because we’re in such an unprecedented time and it’s all so uncertain right now, I feel like I’m distancing myself from reality.”

Girls are also still finding themselves subject to daily public harassment despite the fact they’re only leaving the house once a day under lockdown. According to Plan International UK’s report, 28 per cent feel less safe outside than before the pandemic due to the fact there are fewer people around to help if something happened (52 per cent), and that the police are busy with other priorities (31 per cent).

“Right now, I feel like I am living through someone else’s lens, like I’m watching a movie but from someone else’s perspective” – Atlanta, aged 18

“I’m a key worker, and even during the pandemic, male customers are making inappropriate comments,” reveals Atlanta. “One called me ‘baby’ and told me my boyfriend must be a ‘lucky man’.” Atlanta also says she’s never felt truly safe exercising outside, but has noticed the male gaze even more during lockdown. “I was out running by a road recently and a van honked at me, then a cyclist rode past and kept turning his head to look at me. If anything had happened, the nearest place open was a supermarket, but it was still a long walk away. It makes me feel uncomfortable running on my own and I won’t be going down that road again.”

South Wales-based Josie has also felt unsafe outside during quarantine. “Despite us being in a global pandemic, I’ve still been catcalled,” says the 22-year-old. “The worrying thing is that when walking out and about at night, there are fewer people around to help if anything potentially goes wrong.”

“We cannot allow the lockdown to turn back the clock on girls’ rights,” says Caldwell. “We need to send a clear message that street harassment is not OK, make sure girls can access the support they need, and work with bystanders, including men and boys, to ensure they feel able to call out street harassment.”

Last year, sisters Gemma and Maya Tutton launched Our Streets Now, a campaign to make street harassment a criminal offence in the UK – at the time of writing, their petition has over 201,000 signatures. Speaking to Dazed in March, Maya said: “Public sexual harassment has become normalised: many people I’ve spoken to feel like it’s a horrible but inevitable part of our lives, when the reality is that it’s totally unacceptable.”

Discussing the impact of coronavirus on women’s rights, Claire Barnett, UN Women UK’s executive director tells Dazed: “We are all experiencing challenges due to COVID-19 and the resulting isolation. However, as the response is developed, women’s needs cannot be an afterthought. As investment happens in our provisions, it is absolutely critical that the government takes into account the needs of all women and girls. It is also important that we share information within communities and with each other more effectively on what we can all do to ensure no one gets left behind.”

Barnett cites a handful of key reasons that make coronavirus a heightened danger to women. These include the fact that women make up 70 per cent of frontline healthcare staff, the reduction of funding to critical women’s services when healthcare providers are stretched, and the rise of domestic violence in quarantine.

“We are all experiencing challenges due to COVID-19 and the resulting isolation. However, as the response is developed, women’s needs cannot be an afterthought” – Claire Barnett, UN Women UK

Last month, domestic abuse charity Refuge reported a 700 per cent increase in calls to its helpline in a single day, while a line for perpetrators seeking help to change their behaviour has received 25 per cent more calls since the start of lockdown.

On Saturday (May 2), the government announced a £76 million package to support the most vulnerable in society, including victims of domestic violence, who will reportedly be prioritised for housing. While this is a positive step, it’s currently unclear how the money will be allocated, and is far below the £173 million funding that charities say is needed to support victims.

Concerns have also been raised over women’s access to abortion during lockdown, with the UK announcing changes to regulations before reversing them hours later. The government has now confirmed that women can take two abortion pills at home, instead of having to take one at a clinic – as per the current rules – in order to avoid exposure to coronavirus. In Northern Ireland, abortion law reform was meant to arrive on April 1, following the lifting of archaic bans in October 2019. Although the country has now allowed women to have abortions – by taking one pill at a local clinic and the second at home – the Northern Ireland government is still resisting calls for telemedicine, which would provide both pills safely at home.

“There is an urgent need for policy makers in the UK to ensure girls’ voices are heard throughout this crisis and afterwards” – Rose Caldwell, Plan International UK

“We have global evidence that restricting access to abortions does not reduce the number of abortions happening,” explains Barnett. “It only causes them to happen in unsafe and, at times, traumatising circumstances.”

An inability to access contraception is also concerning for young women, with many using it for heavy periods as well as for preventing pregnancies. According to Plan International UK, adolescent girls were already facing stigma in accessing sexual health services, and are now finding a reduced access to essential and time sensitive services at a time of increased needs. “Digital technology is a gift,” says Barnett, “we should be using it powerfully at this time to ensure that these services are not only available, but are truly accessible by all.”

“We are concerned that this pandemic could set us back still further on the path to gender equality,” Caldwell concludes. “The worries that girls have raised around issues including their mental health and the impact of the lockdown on their education are likely to continue for many months to come, and could impact girls’ future opportunities. There is an urgent need for policy makers in the UK to ensure girls’ voices are heard throughout this crisis and afterwards, especially girls who are vulnerable and often the least heard.”