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  • Elaine Sanderson

From Period Poverty to Period Dignity

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Around 26% of the world’s population is made up of women of a reproductive age. A lot of these women are not able to gain access to basic hygiene or afford the necessary products. Millions of women are experiencing direct consequences of period poverty worldwide, such as being held back in school and life in general.

As of late, the UK has taken effective steps to eradicate period poverty nationwide. The end of period poverty should go hand in hand with the end of taboo surrounding the subject.

How were periods treated in the past?

Periods have often been stigmatised throughout the ages. Although 21st century menstrual products still have their flaws, they are certainly an upgrade from the past. Menstruation has historically been misunderstood and women misinformed. Roman author, Pliny the Elder, wrote that a nude menstruating woman could prevent hailstorms and lightning. These days, we know this to be false. Ancient Hebrews upheld the law of Niddah, where women on their period went into seclusion and were separated from society.

Menstruation has historically been misunderstood and women misinformed

Sometime in the late 19th century, the British Medical Journal described a tampon-like device. However, it is unclear whether it was specifically advertised as a period product. During this time, women were actively having to bleed into their clothing. In Health in the House, one German doctor wrote, “It’s completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.” During this time, women were disregarded when menstruating, it wasn’t discussed and had a certain amount of shame attached to it. So, it is not surprising to learn that women were left without adequate ways to subdue the bleeding. Society itself was not equipped to deal with periods.

So, how did social and scientific understandings of periods develop?

The history of period products

The Hoosier Sanitary Belt was one of the world’s first period products available on the market. Women wore washable pads in the belt that attached around the waist. A large contraption likely time-consuming to put on.

In 1888, the first disposable sanitary pads were developed by Johnson and Johnson. These were known as ‘Lister Towels’. However, it wasn’t until 1929 that the tampon prototype was created. Finally, in the 1980s, pads were given adhesive strips on the bottom so that they could effectively attach to underwear.

lister towels

What is period poverty and why is it an issue?

Period poverty is the concept of not being able to access or afford basic sanitary products. Royal College of Nursing representative Carmel Bagness effectively sums up what period poverty is:

“Can you imagine not being able to afford or access sanitary products to help manage your period? Period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints this can be caused by a wide range of life events that negatively impact on a girl or woman’s ability to access sanitary products to manage a most intimate and regular occurrence in her life.”

"Can you imagine not being able to afford or access sanitary products to help manage your period?"

Where girls and women are unable to access the products and other related resources, they find themselves being left behind. In the U.K., 1 in 10 can’t afford to buy menstrual products and 1 in 7 have previously struggled to afford them. Over the course of a year, 137,700 UK children miss school due to period poverty.

Sanitary products as ‘luxury goods’

Sanitary products are often taxed as luxury goods, therefore making them more expensive. All nonessential items are known as luxury items and a tax increases their price; this is referred to as a tampon tax. Essential items such as medicine and groceries, do not have such a tax. The idea that female hygiene products were, and in some parts of the world, are, treat as though they are anything, but a necessity is a sexist policy.

In 2017, after the government failed to repeal the tax, some supermarkets in the UK started covering the costs themselves. This resulted in a 5% cost decrease. Due to EU rules, the tampon tax could not be abolished until the end of the Brexit transition period. As of 2020, sanitary products are free in England’s schools and colleges. This means there is easy access to products when a girl is on their period. If they find themselves unable to afford them at home, school and colleges will be able to provide young people with the necessities they require. Such an initiative removes a level of taboo around periods in general.


What about Scotland?

In November 2020, the Period Products Bill was approved. As part of the bill:

  • The government must set up a Scotland-wide scheme to allow anyone who needs period products to get them free of charge

  • Schools, colleges and universities must make a range of period products available for free in their toilets

  • The Scottish government will have the power to make other public bodies provide period products for free

Making sanitary products free means no one in Scotland must worry about the financial impact of their period, nor will girls have to miss school days due to lack of access. Period products are to be found in all school toilets.

Why Period Products Should Be Free: The Numbers

  • The number of homeless women in the U.K is rising

  • In 2017, rough sleeping rose by 15%, 14% were women

  • 48% of girls were embarrassed by their periods in 2017

  • 26% reported they did not know what to do when they started their period


Actively missing days of school during a girl’s period will directly impact their education in the long run. In some areas of the world, due to vast levels of period poverty, rags and sands are often used in replacement of pads. This often leads to shame and embarrassment surrounding the menstrual cycle, especially in countries where periods are highly stigmatised.

The steps that countries, namely the UK, are taking to ensure period poverty ends, is a positive one. With the abolishment of the ‘tampon tax’ it recognises that periods are not out of choice and they are not a luxury. It is an inherent part of a woman’s life. Giving young girls free access to menstrual products in schools and colleges is a further indication that societal attitudes towards periods have changed.

For more information, head over to our dedicated section on Feminism and Gender Issues.

Edited by Olena Strzelbicka

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