Why Lower-Income Girls Are Forced to Skip School During Their Periods

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Let’s face it, we all had those days back in middle school — of wanting to stay home on the first day of our period, because the cramps were too excruciating and all we could stand to do was curl up on the couch in our PJs with a warm heating pad.

But imagine if you weren’t able to go to school at all during your period? Not because of the pain, but because you couldn’t afford sanitary products.

While you may have been aware that this is an ongoing issue in developing and third world nations — where 60 percent of women and girls don’t have access to sanitary goods — they are not the only ones losing five days of education every month.

Believe it or not, it’s happening in first world countries like the U.K., and even right here in the U.S.

In fact, it’s such a pervasive and underreported problem, that a British woman named Hanna Morrison started a petition backed by the National Union of Teachers, asking that sanitary products be made accessible and free in schools throughout Britain. On the Change.org website, Morrison explains that when she was 12-years-old, she used to miss school entirely and use toilet tissue as a substitute for pads. This was all because she felt too guilty to ask her mom for money to buy sanitary towels.

She writes:

“Tampons and pads are necessities, not luxuries, so just as toilet paper is provided in schools for free, so should sanitary items. This is something that has already been recognized in New York, where free tampons are available in schools.”

Just last year, the New York City council approved a bill requiring that menstrual hygiene products be made available in public schools, prisons, and homeless shelters. The measures were sponsored and promoted by city councillor Julissa Ferrares-Copeland, who told BBC News that “periods have been stigmatized for too long.” She also shared that she was so happy to be known as the “period legislator.” (If only we all could share such forward thinking.)

Tina Leslie of the U.K.-based organization Freedom4Girls — a group which already provides sanitary products to women in Kenya —  has launched a funding appeal to help those closer to home. The goal of the initiative is to fund research on the issue and provide support for young girls struggling to access sanitary products across Britain.

As Leslie told The Independent, “I knew it was happening to homeless women and women accessing food banks, but not in schools. It’s something you don’t think about until somebody tells you.”

The issue was brought to the attention of Freedom4Girls by police officer Sarah Barrie. After working at a school in Leeds, she discovered that female students were being taunted because they couldn’t afford sanitary products.

One school girl who missed school every month told BBC News:

“I wrapped a sock around my underwear just to stop the bleeding, because I didn’t want to get shouted at … I once taped tissue to my underwear. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t get any money because my mum was a single parent and she had five mouths to feed, so there wasn’t much leftover money in the pot to be giving to us.”

Another girl opened up that she stayed at home because, frankly, she was scared by what was happening to her body:

“When I went on my period, I started taking time off school because I didn’t know what was actually going on with my body. That made my attendance really low and I was getting in trouble. One, day the teachers came to my house and asked why I’m not at school, and they actually took me to school. I thought it was only happening to me … so I was scared and I wanted to stay at home.”

In this day and age, there should be much more information about periods for young girls, both at school and at home. Then again, my own mom didn’t explain menstrual cycles fully to me, so when I finally got mine at the age 14 (yep, the last in my class), I thought it was just going to be one quick passing of blood. I had no idea that periods could last up to five or six days!

We all know how unnecessarily embarrassing periods can be, particularly when we’re young, and menstruating is still relatively new to us. I have so many of my own personal horror stories: Getting my period on the school bus home and having to walk all the way down the bus aisle praying that blood wouldn’t show through my school skirt; getting my period while playing tennis and having to exit the match; losing hours of my school day dashing around to find just enough coins to put in the vending machine — only for it to then jam up on me before I could actually get a tampon. But perhaps worst of all was when a male teacher refused to let me go to the bathroom, and I was left to clean up blood from my seat after the class ended.

That being said, I never had to skip school altogether. I mean, how on earth are girls meant to get ahead, or even keep up at school, if they have no other choice than to miss at least five days out of every month?

Tampons and pads aren’t a luxury, they’re a necessity.
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When you consider the cost of tampons though, is it any wonder why they would be referred to as “luxury” products? In the U.K., where I live, they are £6 (or $10) — making the total cost that a woman would spend on them over a lifetime around £20,000 ($25,000). But here’s the thing: Tampons and pads aren’t a luxury, they’re a necessity. Living with the stomach cramps, food cravings, headaches, nausea, and tiredness that often accompany periods is difficult enough. Girls, and women for that matter, shouldn’t also have to worry about how they will actually contain the blood. It’s time to remove all taxes on feminine hygiene products, and stop stigmatizing something that every woman has to deal with on a monthly basis.

As Ferreras-Copeland stated in a 2015 press release:

“No young woman should face losing class time because she can’t afford or simply cannot access feminine hygiene products. Providing young women with pads and tampons in schools will help them stay focused on their learning and sends a message about value and respect for their bodies.”

Amen to that.

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