Can co-ops help to address period poverty?

According to research by Plan International, one in 10 girls is unable to afford sanitary wear

Women co-operators have been discussing ways their organisations can help to tackle period poverty in England.

During a workshop at the Co-operative Women’s Voices meeting in Sutton Colfield on 7 March, they highlighted the extent of the problem, which sees many young women unable to afford sanitary products. And they suggested ways retail co-ops could help.

The event was organised by the Central England Co-operative as part of the Co-operative Women’s Voices, a series of spaces for women in co-ops to meet and exchange ideas.

Central England Co-op president Elaine Dean shared her experience as a teacher, recalling schools where women teachers were often asked for sanitary products by girls in class. Some girls even skipped school for a few days, every four weeks, she said – which suggests they could not attend, because they could not afford sanitary products while on their period.

According to research by Plan International, one in ten girls cannot afford sanitary products, while 68% of girls in UK can’t concentrate in class because of the problem. Furthermore, one in seven girls (14%) have borrowed sanitary wear from a friend because they could not afford it.

Girls who skip school when on their period lose in total 145 school days.

Last year, the Scottish government unveiled a £5.2m scheme to fight period poverty, making sanitary products available free to all of its 395,000 pupils and students. The Welsh government has also allocated £1m to help address period poverty, working with schools and local councils to ensure that all girls and young women can access good sanitary facilities when they need them.

Ms Dean said England has yet to make a similar commitment – but since then, in today’s spring budget, chancellor Philip Hammond announced that free sanitary products would be provided in secondary schools and colleges across England.

Related: Women co-operators share their stories for International Women’s Day

Back in 1992, the Co-op Group became the first organisation in the UK to introduce health warning on tampon packets, alerting women to the potential fatal effects of toxic shock syndrome.

The warning was no longer inside the box but on the external packaging to stress the importance of changing sanitary products regularly – which increases costs.

Central England’s new chief executive, Debbie Robinson, was at the time director of food marketing at the Group, with responsibility for the brand strategy. While there, she also created and delivered the “good with food” campaign.

Referring to the decision to include information on packaging, she said: “In the early 1990s young girls didn’t change the tampons, leading to infections. That was the beginning of the period poverty. Nobody asked me to put toxic information on packaging, I just thought it was a good idea.”

Ms Dean added that food banks accept sanitary products but most people do not realise this when they make donations. She suggested working with schools on local areas to provide sanitary products taking inspiration from the Red Box Project, a Portsmouth community initiative enabling young people to have access to free menstrual products.

Other delegates also recommended working with local GP surgeries to provide education around how to run red boxes and sessions.

Colleagues across Central England’s food stores already make monthly donations to the food bank collection points available on premises.

However, more can be done to raise awareness about the products that can be donated, said the women taking part in the workshop. They suggested having collection points at future co-operative events so delegates could donate sanitary products for food banks.