Layla Moran highlights period poverty in Parliament debate

On Wednesday this week, Layla Moran held a debate in Westminster Hall to highlight the issue of period poverty and the need to provide sanitary protection for those most vulnerable. It was an interesting debate, but there’s no good the minister making sympathetic noises and everybody agreeing with each other if the Government doesn’t do something about it. Layla pointed this out.

Here is her main speech but you can read all the interventions and the rest of the debate here. 

I am delighted to have secured this debate on an important topic that—let’s face it—remains taboo and is still a bit embarrassing for many people. It is precisely because no one wants to talk about it that I believe it is so critical that we do, so I will start by putting my money where my mouth is and telling the House one of my most embarrassing moments.

I was in the first week of a new school. I was 12. I was feeling very out of place and very lost. I saw a teacher beckoning me from the top of a stairwell. I walked towards her and said, “Yes, Miss? What did I do wrong?” I was convinced something was wrong. She said, “Don’t worry—everything’s fine, but I wanted to let you know that you have a stain of blood on your skirt.” Of course, it was not fine. I looked behind and on my light blue uniform there was indeed such a stain. My face went red, and then white. I remember going to the bathroom and crying, and when I stopped crying I called my mum. She came and we went home; I told the school that I wanted to go home to change. In fact, she had brought me another skirt, but I was just so mortified by how many people might have seen it and not said anything.

For me, that was a one-off and I was better prepared the next time, but for thousands of girls in this country, missing school because they cannot afford sanitary products is a regular occurrence. It is an outrage that in a country as wealthy as Britain we let that happen. Thanks to the double whammy of the stigma attached to both poverty and periods, we simply do not know the scale of the problem.

Food banks are now actively asking for donations of sanitary products. Teachers are dipping into their own pockets to keep supplies of sanitary products in their desks.

Many of us first realised that period poverty was such an issue for young women when it came to light that teachers in Leeds had got in touch with a charity called Freedom4Girls that provides sanitary products to women in Kenya and had asked whether it would be willing to give them a supply for girls in their school. They had noticed that girls were missing class at around the same time every month, like clockwork. Given the substitutes, including rolled-up toilet paper or old socks, that girls from low-income families are using, it is no surprise that they choose to stay home. Now, I admit that the rolled-up toilet tissue trick has served me well, but I can go and buy some products or go home. For these girls, it is a regular occurrence. It should not be.

Period poverty affects not just girls, but women. Charities and campaigners tell me that it is rife among asylum seekers, refugees, women in refuges, and indeed any vulnerable women who cannot afford to buy the products they need. As a nation we must do better, and as a society we need to get better at talking about this. Given that 52% of the population menstruate, or have done at some point, is it not ridiculous that it has taken until 2017 for an advert for sanitary products to show red liquid rather than blue? I assure hon. Members that it is never blue. The more we talk about periods and normalise what is a completely natural and healthy function, the easier we will make it for young girls to talk about this.

Very little research has been done on period poverty in schools in the UK, but what we do know is shocking. In a Plan International UK survey of 1,000 girls, 49% said that they had missed an entire day of school because of their period. Critically, of those, 59% had lied about ​why, claiming that something else had caused their absence. Meanwhile, 82% of the girls surveyed admitted that they had hidden or concealed their sanitary products, while nearly three quarters said that they felt embarrassed even buying them. Again, I will admit to that: during the 2015 election campaign, I was approached for a chat about politics in Boots, where I had just bought some tampons. I remember standing with them behind my back because I was a bit embarrassed. I would not have done that with toothpaste. That shows how desperately we need to talk more about the issue.

Plan International’s campaign to normalise periods—including with a period emoji—is brilliant, as is all the great work that businesses and charities are doing up and down the country. Boots and others have introduced drop-in donation points. Bodyform has promised to donate 200,000 packs of sanitary products by 2020. There are grassroots campaigns such as the Periodical Diary, which has a website on which girls can talk frankly about their periods; it also goes into schools and delivers workshops. However, we should not leave it to charities and business to pick up the Government’s slack. How can it be okay for a mother to be forced to choose between food and sanitary products? That is exactly the choice that far too many women in this country face.

I was disappointed that the Chancellor did not make funding available in last week’s Budget to ensure that schools could stock sanitary products for those who need them. Let us focus on that small issue. Such a small, simple step would restore dignity, save embarrassment and reduce the number of girls who are missing valuable days of teaching and learning.

It is not too late. The Minister could offer something to these desperate women. I hope that she and others are feeling the political pressure mount. Last year, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) tabled amendments to the Finance Bill that were rejected by the Government—shamefully, I might add. I thank and commend her for her excellent work on the issue. In March, the Education Secretary—who is also Minister for Women and Equalities, as we have already been reminded—said in answer to the then Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland, that she would look at the issue of period poverty “carefully”. I look forward to an update from the Minister on where that assessment is, and when the Government plan to publish their work.

I also ask the Minister: did this issue even get a mention in the discussions with the Treasury over the last weeks and months? I sincerely hope that we will not be spun the line that the reallocation of money from VAT on sanitary products to women’s charities is enough, because it is not.

We estimate that the small measure of providing sanitary products in schools would cost in the region of £5 million, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the £1 billion found for the Democratic Unionist party. I mention that simply to point out that when an issue is important enough, somehow money seems to be found.

Finally, I also plead that responsibility for this issue not be passed on to schools. Yes, schools have budgets, but those budgets are ever squeezed, and schools still need to find a further £1.7 billion, according to the National Audit Office. I ask the Minister not to pass the buck today on this issue, and to find the small amount of new money that is needed to fund these very important initiatives. Period poverty is a hidden plight, and it is time that it was taken seriously by all. I thank all Members in advance for their contributions, and of course I thank the Minister, who I have much respect for, for listening intently to the arguments put forward in the short time that we have.

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  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '17 - 12:35pm

    Philip Hammond refused the money, but Theresa May was Minister for Women and Equality at cabinet level during the coalition at a time that a Liberal Democrat woman was a minister in the Home Office.
    This is a strong case, previously made here by the editor of Lib Dem Voice, but do not weaken it by exaggeration. “52% of the population” is presumably all females in the UK, but should you subtract females under the age of (say) 12 years? and women who are pregnant?
    Could embarrassment for some be avoided by buying online?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 2nd Dec '17 - 9:10pm

    Richard, you are kind of missing the point here. Some can’t afford to buy at all. It’s not about embarrassment, it is about lack of funds and girls missing school because they can’t afford sanitary products.

    And 52% of the population will experience menstruation for decades.

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