Laws matter. They shape and define our culture and they also reflect who we are and who we want to be as a society. We have seen how legislation has changed our culture, from legislation relating to maternity leave to treatment in the workplace. We are no longer in the Mad Men era of racial and sexual harassment and there is a reason for that; laws were enacted to protect, and this helped to define us.
I therefore ask, if we want to strive for an equal society, with equal access to opportunities how can this be possible if girls do not have equal access to education? It is fundamentally impossible. In the UK (and I am still shocked by the statistics) one in 10 girls cannot afford to buy menstrual products resulting in thousands of children being forced to miss school and 12 per cent having to improvise because of the costs. This is unbelievable and unacceptable. If we value gender equality and equality of access to education, we need to ensure that our laws reflect that.
I am one of the directors of #FreePeriods, the incredible campaign launched by Amika George, which has been at the forefront of fight against period poverty. Amika will tell you that when she launched the campaign, she thought that the Government would rectify the situation immediately, why wouldn’t they? If girls were not attending their compulsory education because they did not have access to sanitary products, surely the Government would help. But they didn’t.
Until now the Government has refused to fully acknowledge the issue of period poverty. This by itself is shocking as much as it is illogical. After significant campaigning about the tampon tax as well as by the #FreePeriods campaign, the Government answered by donating £1.5m out of the £15m Tampon Tax income to Brook Young People – The ‘Let’s Talk, Period.’ project. Remember #FreePeriods was not asking for a donation, but to ensure that menstrual products were provided to all girls who needed support in accessing them. That did not happen.
As the #FreePeriods campaign persisted, the Government then claimed that instead of resolving the issue centrally, funding and access should be left up to the individual schools to manage. If you know anything about the budgetary pressure schools are under, you will know how hard it is for schools to obtain or even find additional funding, for anything. This meant that over the course of the last few years charities and community organisations have been launched to support girls at school, most notably the incredible Red Box Project, who are on the board of the #FreePeriods campaign. One school that works closely with the Red Box Project informed a member of our board that funding menstrual products would need to come from the already insufficient £3.50 per child budget required to cover all medical and first aid costs. The Government was passing the buck again.
As we grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of meaningful action to address the issue, we decided it was time to consider legal action against the Government. We instructed human rights law firm Hausfeld and Cloisters chambers to advise us and they are currently considering the legal issues. The plan is to ensure the Government adheres to both its domestic and international obligations, including under equality and human rights law, to provide equal access to education for ALL children, regardless of their sex.
So here we are. Today Philip Hammond has announced in his Spring Statement a commitment to funding menstrual products at secondary and college level. It is of course a significant step forward in the fight to eradicate period poverty in schools, but it is definitely not enough.
Firstly, access must be provided to all children in full-time compulsory education, not just for secondary schools and colleges. This means the funding must be extended to cover primary schools. Secondly, it is essential that the scheme is sustainable, which means ensuring the right is enshrined in legislation. The Government has done this previously, for example the duty on Local Authorities to secure early years provision free of charge for all 3 and 4-year olds (and for eligible 2-year olds) and with Universal Infant Free School Lunches and Milk. We must ensure that access is provided for the longer term.
There will never be true equality if girls do not have access to full participation in education. Period.
Free and universal provision of menstrual products needs to be enshrined in law. Period.
Please support us by donating to the #FreePeriods crowdfunding campaign here or if you would like to get involved at a corporate level, please contact me directly.
Janvi Patel is director of #FreePeriods and Advisor to Equality Now