We must move from availability to accessibility to end period inequality

Women and girls are still missing education due to periods, despite success of period equality schemes, writes Kelly Greenaway

Women and girls are still missing education due to periods, despite success of period equality schemes, writes Kelly Greenaway

14 Nov 2023, 5:00

Women and girls, including those who may not identify as female but as transgender or non-binary, are on average missing 20 days of education over the course of their college years due to their periods. The equivalent of four academic weeks, this is actually worse than before period equality schemes were put in force.

Our newest piece of research on the subject – the latest instalment in the longest-running research into educational absenteeism and periods in the UK – reveals that the key challenge is no longer one of availability but of access.

It’s without debate that significant progress has been made in making menstrual products more accessible by funding free access to them. In England alone, 99 per cent of secondary schools have ordered their quota of products since the scheme began. But our new statistics highlight issues getting products to girls and keeping girls in lessons. 

The reasons for this vary – but a compelling argument can be made that it’s because over half of students (54 per cent) did not find period products freely available in washrooms and a further one in ten did not know if they were available. We need to close this gap between providing colleges with all the products they need and getting them into the hands of the learners who need them.

As providers of these products to colleges, we know from our own data that they have more than enough for their girls. DfE data also shows that colleges are ordering the products. However, the products might not be reaching learners because they are not easily accessible. Well-meaning teams may not realise that limiting access to products effectively stigmatises learners who are forced to ask for them.

We know that in many settings products are being locked away in cupboards. We also know that many girls are too embarrassed to ask for them. This is where we need to take action, ensuring everyone can access the products they need when they need them.

Limiting access to products effectively stigmatises learners

More than half of girls surveyed (52 per cent) are still taking time off college due to their monthly cycle. Worryingly, the number of students who say they are likely to miss college over the next year due to their periods has soared to more than half (52 per cent).

To avoid any disruption to learning caused by periods, it is key to the success of this initiative for girls to be able to access products exactly when and where they need them in a stigma-free way. But beyond that, the most important thing we can do to make a tangible difference is to have open conversations and actively promote the period equality schemes that are available in colleges across the country.

It’s simply not enough to blame absenteeism figures on access to products alone. All of us including educators need more education, support and information about periods. That menstruation is still a hidden and unspoken reality for so many is leading to more and more girls to stay away from the classroom. An inclusive ethos demands that we do better for them.

To support this, we have recently launched a podcast, The Blobcast: Free the PeriodIt comes with resources for educators to give everyone more knowledge about their periods and to instigate open and honest conversations around menstruation. More than that, it tackles these issues in a light-hearted way – an important part of reducing stigma, normalising these conversations and thereby tackling the ongoing taboos around periods. 

I am incredibly proud of our work to highlight the issues faced by millions of girls. We remain as passionate and committed as ever to work with governments, local and  educators to deploy the necessary measures to ensure that period inequality becomes a thing of the past.

Women and girls cannow access free period products that will ensure their education is uninterrupted. Together, it’s on us to ensure they do. And that’s as much about education as it is about availability.

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