“Schools already have discretion over how they can use their funding – if they want to make sanitary products available to disadvantaged students then they are free to do so.”
Today Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, refused to commit to setting aside funding to end period poverty in school children. She claimed that the issue was something for schools and parents to tackle – nothing to do with her.
We started our Period Potential campaign earlier this year when it came to light that kids were missing school, in some cases up to a week every month, because their parents couldn’t afford to buy menstrual products. When we started our petition the floodgates opened; our inbox was full of messages about kids using newspaper, tissue and old socks. We were horrified, but not surprised. Since the Tories (along with their coalition partners) began implementing their austerity politics back in 2010, the number of children living in poverty has skyrocketed to around 4 million. With the rollout of universal credit, under which most parents can expect a reduction in their benefit payments, this is only set to worsen.
Justine Greening talked about it being at the discretion of schools to provide menstrual products to those in needs, but school budgets have been one of the worst casualties of the last seven years. Academy trusts are notorious for not offering good teachers fair pay rises because they have no money and charging parents for anything and everything because their budgets are so stretched. Many schools are struggling to buy books and pens – how is it ‘within their discretion’ to provide something they have no money for?
Greening also implied that the ultimate responsibility lies with parents to make sure their children are in school. As both the child of a family and later, the mother of a family, that has experienced financial hardship – sometimes extreme – that is downright insulting. Parents want their kids in school. They want them happy, they want them provided for and doing well. Parents want their kids to have a life better than their own and are usually doing everything they can to give it to them. Parents make sacrifices, especially mothers. Mothers living in poverty skip meals so their kids will have more to eat, they wear shoes and clothes that are falling apart at the seams and I can promise you, for the vast majority of those kids skipping school, at home there is a mum who hasn’t had her own tampons in a very long time. This isn’t something I had admitted until recently, when I’d had enough of people tell me that period poverty doesn’t exist, but I’ve been forced to use my diaphragm as a menstrual cup in the past. I’ve used the same sanitary towel for far longer than recommended, and I’ve been ashamed. But I’d done that that and more to make sure my children were fed.
There’s one single thing Greening said today that I agree with. She said that the issue “goes far wider than schools”. She’s right. It does. It’s not just about schools. It’s about a welfare system designed to punish the poor and plunge them into ever harsher circumstances, whether they work or not. It’s about a systematic dismantling of all the services that once existed to support disadvantaged families. It’s about a sexist culture that oppresses the biology of those assigned female at birth and treats their basic functions as something to be ashamed of. And it is about a government that is both utterly detached from the material reality of poverty and all too eager to create more of it.
Period poverty is a massive and complex issue, and no, sticking a box of towels in every school won’t eradicate it overnight. It would be a bloody good start though (pun absolutely intended).
Parents and schools have to be part of the solution and believe me, Ms Greening, I’ve talked to many of both; we are all more than willing. The ultimate responsibility though lies with the ones who have been cutting welfare for the last seven years, closing Sure Start centres and hacking school budgets to pieces. It lies with the Tory MP who wouldn’t even say “tampon” during the tampon tax debate. Most of all, it lies with the person responsible for all of our children having access to education, who coincidentally also happens to have responsibility for representing the interests of women in parliament. You, Ms Greening. It lies with you.