Free Period Products: Just the Bloody Start!

Terri Harris, Education and Wellbeing Specialist for Brook’s Let Talk. Period project, highlights the successes and shortcomings of the Department for Education’s period poverty scheme that will see free products available in schools and colleges in England.

As of 20 January 2020, tampons, period pads and menstrual cups will be freely available in all schools and colleges in England. The scheme, funded by the Department for Education, will provide free products in an effort to tackle period poverty and ensure no young person misses out on education due to lack of access to products.

This is a ground-breaking opportunity to reduce menstrual shame, stigma and taboo – but we cannot forget that period poverty is not just about a lack of access to products.

From our work on the Let’s Talk. Period project (LTP) we know that products are just the tip of the iceberg, and what is often holding young people back is a lack of knowledge. 

We work with young people aged 12-25 years old and the vast majority don’t know what a vulva is or the names of its parts. Nor do they know the full range of existing period products and how to use them. Without this information, young people are left to figure out how to manage their menstrual health on their own, increasing the potential risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, thrush and UTIs from over-use of products.  

It’s fantastic that the scheme offers a range of products for schools to choose from. But the decision about which products to have at each school will often be in the hands of teachers and pastoral workers who may not necessarily know the full needs of their students. It’s hugely important that schools involve young people in this process of selection to ensure that they meet the needs of all people who menstruate. This is also the perfect moment to open dialogue around periods and break the stigma! 

I’m really pleased to see that the scheme is offering menstrual cups. From our experience with LTP, young people are very conscious of how their periods impact the planet and how cost-efficient reusable products can be. But they can take some getting used to, and education can be vital in their successful use.  It’s important that young people can access advice and support around this. Schools need to be thoughtful of who and how they provide menstrual cups to, to ensure they are used safely. Again, there is a vital opportunity to break down taboos and increase mentorship among young people when using new products. 

Unfortunately, the products offered by the scheme have missed the mark on inclusivity. Two out of three available products require insertion, which for many young people are not an option – for physical, social, cultural, or emotional reasons. For some, speaking about periods or inserting a product into the vagina can be triggering and emotionally detrimental.  Period pads are the only available options for those who are unable to insert products, which due to the visible menstrual blood causes difficulty for many.

It’s crucial that schools are aware of these diverse requirements of all people who menstruate, including transgender and non-binary young people, young people with special educational needs and young people from diverse cultural backgrounds, and are able to manage the complex emotional needs that come with them. 

Finally, products need to be easily accessible to young people. From our experience of LTP many young people already had free products in school thanks to The Red Box Project. However, they didn’t always know where the products were, or were too embarrassed to access them. For many schools, the products were in locked classrooms or behind reception desks, which meant students had to ask permission to access them. Processes like these leave young people embarrassed, as we are still yet to truly overcome the shame attached to menstruating. Schools must think strategically about placement of products to ensure that they are always accessible. 

This scheme is a huge step forward and is an open opportunity to reduce the shame and stigma surrounding periods. It’s a fantastic achievement; one that should be hugely celebrated. But we must not stop pushing forward on these achievements. This is a golden opportunity to really change society’s perception of periods. This means focusing on education and empowering young people to be in control and proud of their periods. This is just the bloody start!

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