Most of the problems in the world are solvable. World hunger, as Jeff Bezos and the rest of us are acutely aware, can be eliminated. The migrant crisis currently affecting Europe is fixable, providing the worlds political powers are willing to intervene significantly with intelligently choreographed political measures and financial packages. We can also alleviate the ensuing environmental crisis, as long as we are mature enough to reassess our everyday lives and address our unsustainable living patterns. And we even possess the potential to resolve medical emergencies, such as Coronavirus; and discover cures to terminal
diagnoses given we afford scientists the time and patience required to ensure effective remedies are manufactured. But not all problems are as existential as these. Nor do all require such time and patience. Society is awash with problems that can be remedied immediately, and one of those is period poverty.
The idea of girls and women not having access to sanitary products seems incompatible with a country as economically prosperous and socially advanced as Britain. Indeed, it feels more consistent with our perception of third world countries; where health services are feeble and whose governments place their self-interest above the needs of the people. Yet it is estimated that around 1 in 10 British girls does not have access to sanitary items purely due to their financial predicament. Meanwhile, as few as 1 in 7 have openly confessed to having struggled to find the money required to purchase these essential items. And though some organisations have introduced measures to arrest these incidences, cases continue to grow; with the charity Bloody Good Period recently announcing that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem; with demand for items increasing six-fold.
These figures are alarming and they should frighten you. But they should not be surprising. Britain is infamously a nation built upon social and economic inequalities. But in the last decade, a ravine has emerged, exposing the gulf between those who financially can and those who cannot. Much of that is a result of the Conservative party’s austerity crusade designed at permanently paralysing the public sector. Since the party assumed office, we have witnessed a sharp decline in living standards; life expectancy has begun to shrink, work has become increasingly insecure, and all the while that prices have incrementally risen wages have remained permanently frozen. The government’s addiction to annihilating the state that Thatcher merely sought to roll back has proved incredibly traumatic. Cutbacks to vital services have starved the public sector to the point of anorexia. Whilst the roll-out of Universal Credit has inflicted immense suffering on those most economically vulnerable and has left many living in permanent turmoil. And if things were not bad enough foodbanks continue to thrive.
For too many, these are the worst of times. And for some these troubles extend to period poverty. It is estimated that 49% of young girls are frequently missing days at school because of financial barriers depriving them of access to essential products. And given what we have experienced during the pandemic; empty shelves in the supermarkets, and people confined to the limits of their own homes, numbers are likely to rise. That we have arrived at this juncture owes largely to the failings of those who possess political power. It would be wrong to say Parliament has been inactive, but the schemes it has introduced have done little to
eliminate the financial burdens women and girls continue to continue to face. In the presence of a leadership vacuum, charitable organisations have taken up the mantel as providers of support to this in need. Though the work of organisations such as Freedom4Girls remains of immense importance, the fact remains that we as a society should not have to rely on the goodness of others to address a problem such as this. Instead, we should be looking towards the Government, or Parliament, to demonstrate some much-needed leadership and take control of the situation.
In the past Parliament has proven sympathetic to the issue, but it’s initiatives have proved inefficient and done little to address the matter. Admittedly VAT charges on tampons and other sanitary items may have now been removed but these are a consequence of Brexit, not a result of Parliamentary activism. And in truth its removal will ultimately save women an insignificant sum of money and achieve very little in the way of substantially addressing the issue. And while, at times, the government’s rhetoric has appeared promising, it has continually seemed more concerned with manipulating the suffering of young girls and women; turning it into an instrument to beat its predecessors with, as opposed to a rectifiable problem. Although money has been sidelined and taskforces established, in the two years since Penny Mordaunt announced the commissioning of such an operation, little has been forthcoming in the way of substantial improvements. Seismic reforms remain elusive.
Perhaps events are to blame for the lack of movement. Brexit has proven all-consuming and progress was hindered by last winter’s general election and the current pandemic. And given the circumstances, all other matters have justifiably been sent to the back of the queue. But that does not excuse Parliament from ignoring other issues altogether. Though more pressing matters exist, it still has a responsibility to the British public to address wider societal problems. After all, the perils of everyday life do not just disappear when new cracks appear. Rather they continue to linger and often are exacerbated. Our legislatures are designed to be able to multitask and focus attention upon a variety of issues at any given time. Even during the darkest hours of the Second World War Parliament’s output was not limited to the war effort alone. Sufficient time was afforded to educational reform and other more trivial matters, whilst behind the scenes, the foundations of the welfare state were being composed. Politics may well have become increasingly turbulent in recent years but Parliament’s powers have endured. It retains the ability to legislate on an array of issues yet it has consistently neglected them. By failing to maintain a broader outlook, matters such as period poverty have fallen down the back of the bed like Jesse in Toy Story 2. And consequently, the plight of young girls and women across the country has worsened.
What makes this negligence all the more concerning is that it is happening during a time when female representation in Parliament is at a record high. We are now at the point in history whereby a third of sitting MPs are women, and yet we see no changes. The dangers of period poverty endure. Historically, Parliament’s refusal to act could be explained by the institution being an ‘old boys club’ full of men insensitive and unconcerned by the plight of women. The reasons for this are complicated and multifaceted, but with women traditionally confined to the home, the men who held the keys of power proved reluctant to recognise ‘women’s issues’ altogether and seldom sort to address them. The idea that menstruation and all that surrounds it was a topic for Parliament was ridiculous; it simply was not a conversation that needed to be had. But these old arguments are starting to fade. Nowadays women make up the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and with Theresa May having vacated Downing Street just over a year ago, the idea that women do not possess power is finally diluting. We may be some way off or the ideal equilibrium that is desirable, but girl power at Westminster is steadily growing. There are an increasing number of prominent female politicians who are assuming greater authority and positions of influence both inside and outside of the House or Commons. And yet period poverty remains low on the priority ladder and seemingly outside of Parliament’s consciousness.
So why does it remain so low on Parliament’s agenda? Maybe it is simply not a priority amongst MPs. But if so, why? Why are we not witnessing more incidences of MPs using their platform to achieve genuine change? After all, isn’t that why we elect them – to represent our interests, to act as the vehicle we channel our grievances through and produce solutions to societies ills? Or are there other factors at play? If so, then MPs salaries are almost certainly one of these. With an annual salary eclipsing £80,000 their income remains a bone of contention amongst much of the British public. And without factoring in money earned from jobs outside of Parliament, this tidy sum leaves politicians in a handsome economic position. They are sufficiently shielded from the troubles of economic hardship and instability and consequently, they do not have a firsthand experience of the troubles affecting so many women and young girls in Britain. Ultimately they live in a different world. That is not a criticism nor an accusation that they are overpaid. It is merely pointing out the fact that their level of income insulates them against the troubles associated with economic hardship, such as; period poverty. It is unimaginable that the issue is impacting the lives of any of our elected representatives and it’s unlikely their families or anyone within their social circles is affected either. Sheltered by their income, there is a lack of burning injustice amongst MPs; many of whom do not possess the levels of anger and political will required to force through effective change. As a result, the status quo remains.
Anger though is not all Parliament is lacking; it is equally bereft of political ingenuity. Westminster is full of problem solvers yet none have devised an effective scheme or a systematic approach, to address the issue. Progress remains stagnant and the lives of those impoverished are progressively worsening. The number of those affected continues to rise, and still we do nothing; no solution, no answers, no improvements. It would not take much for our politicians to pool their ideas together and pioneer a plan to tackle the injustices of period poverty. We have seen in recent days precisely how this can happen, with a bill unanimously passed in
Holyrood that made Scotland the first country in the world to provide free period products to those who need them. But even this symbolic piece of legislation, though a historic moment globally for feminism, remains vague and leaves much of the responsibility in the hands of local councils to find solutions. Quite what these will look like and when they will come into effect remains to be seen.
One option was to emulate the C-Card initiative that was introduced to improve sexual health and sexual practices just over a decade ago. But that was written out of the legislation after concerns were raised amongst Scottish MSPs. Yet, one cannot help but feel they have acted prematurely. Admittedly the scheme may have its faults; its successfulness remains questions as too does its reach, but it does at least offer a blueprint on how to tackle period poverty throughout Britain.
Rather than ditch the C-Card concept, the governments at Westminster and Holyrood need to instead reconfigure it. They should be introducing a scheme that automatically enrols all women under the age of 25 and sees them given a ‘card’ with a barcode on the back of it that is scannable at checkouts allowing them to obtain period products for free. The card would not require much personal information; merely the individual’s name and local surgery, possibly even their NHS number. No photo iD would be necessary. Those entitled would automatically be sent the card by their surgery, and all young girls would receive their card upon commencing secondary school. For those who begin their periods earlier, a form would be made available at their school’s office and their local surgeries. However, given that many may feel embarrassed or apprehensive about approaching an adult, the form would also be accessible via a website which would need to be created in conjunction with the scheme. To accelerate administrative procedures, the cards would be accompanied by a letter containing an activation code that
would be activated via the website; those who complete it online would receive their code via email. And to guarantee those experiencing economic hardship benefit from the scheme, all those regardless of their age who receive Universal Credit or other state benefits would also be automatically enrolled. As would those in receipt of foodbank vouchers. This would ease the burden upon those outlets, who often find that sanitary products are one of the most highly sort after yet least donated items.
Naturally, some elements would need ironing out. To succeed it is critical that retail outlets and pharmacies are on board. This may well require a period of negotiation to address the financial implications and discussions could prove lengthy. Sweeteners may be inevitable to guarantee widespread cooperation. It may also be necessary to allow small, local, independent stores to opt-out of the scheme altogether. But these are all obstacles that can be easily overcome.
The effectiveness of these schemes hinges upon their visibility and the public’s awareness. As such, a mass media campaign would be essential to ensure the public is sufficiently informed of how the programme operates and those who start their periods before the age 11 know exactly where and how to get support. Posters would be required in all workspaces too and a stream of television adverts would also be required to initiate a public conversation about menstruation and the support that is available. Whilst school assemblies would also have a vital role to play to ensure that no girl falls through the cracks and suffers unnecessarily. It may also help for the card to be a bright colour – though this is not essential.
Though it would take time to implement and would come at some cost to the taxpayer it is time and money that is worth spending. After all this an issue that can disrupt the lives of just over half of the population, and one that has been allowed to grow for far too long. As a society, we should not be apprehensive about piloting new projects to resolve existing problems, particularly when they contain provisions that are both realistic and achievable. Of course fine-tuning would be required but were we to see something like this introduced it would go along to eliminating one of British society’s most shameful sins and would alleviate one of the more toxic pressures facing women and girls today.
We indeed expect too much of our politicians. We are in the habit of placing unrealistically high demands upon them and when they fall short we chastise them as failures. Too often we fail to recognise them as human beings; acknowledge that they like the rest of us are fallible and accept them for their limitations. It’s dangerous to expect them to perform miracles and cure society of all its ill. They are not gods after all. But on the issue of period poverty, our demands are reasonable. We are not asking for much, just practical solutions. The answers offered by initiatives such as the C-Card scheme demonstrates that solutions are
out there and within the scope of our politicians. What we need now is for them to be brave, show the will required to produce effective change and prove their legislative creativity. Only when these three conditions are met will period poverty truly be addressed.