British girls from low-income families are missing school during their periods because they cannot afford sanitary protection - prompting charities working with women and girls abroad to move their projects closer to home.
A funding appeal has been launched for UK-wide research into the issue after a police officer working at a school in Leeds discovered a large number of female pupils were truanting because they were unable to buy products during their menstrual cycle — said to cost in the region of £20,000 over a woman’s lifetime.
Sara Barrie, safer schools officer for West Yorkshire Police, told The Independent she established that many girls were relying on teachers to provide them with sanitary products, with others opting not to attend school at all for several days a month.
“A large number of students were asking us for sanitary products in school. A lot of teachers were buying them from their own pockets to give out,” Ms Barrie said.
“It was clear there was an issue. And when I then delved a bit deeper and opened up discussions, the girls said financing and funding was a real problem.
“Many of these kids are from low income families. There’s often more than one child, and families really are struggling with finances, with these products often coming far down the priority line. The girls are so sensitive that they don’t want to upset mum by saying they need them because they know money’s tight."
One pupil, who started her period aged 11, told BBC Radio Leeds that she had taped toilet roll to her underwear and missed school every month because she couldn't access sanitary protection.
“I wrapped a sock around my underwear just to stop the bleeding, because I didn't want to get shouted at," she said. "I once Sellotaped tissue to my underwear. I didn't know what else to do.
"I didn't get any money because my mum was a single parent and she had five mouths to feed, so there wasn't much leftover money in the pot to be giving to us."
PC Barrie said that while the number of girls facing these issues were difficult to quantify, it was evident that there is a lack of support in place within schools.
“When we’re doing truancy figures and working out the percentages, it just shows kids who aren’t in school. This problem would never be recorded anywhere,“ she added. "But you have to put two and two together. These girls need support to access and simple product and it’s not there.”
The officer informed a campaigner from UK-based organisation Freedom4Girls, a group providing sanitary products to girls and women in Kenya, which has subsequently launched an initiative to fund research on the issue and provide support for young girls struggling to access the products in the UK.
Its founder Tina Leslie, told The Independent: “I knew it was happening to homeless women and women accessing food banks, but not in schools. It’s something you don’t think about until somebody tells you.
“It is linked to poverty. In developing and third world countries it’s well-known that 60 per cent of women and girls don’t have access and they win five days of education, but it’s not widely known that it’s also an issue here in the UK. We knew it was happening, but not on what scale.
“There were 25,000 visits to food banks in Leeds alone last year. So if you’re at crisis point you go to a food bank and, like in Kenya, if you can’t afford food you can’t afford sanitary protection.
“We know in other countries, but why don’t we do it more here? Because nobody thinks it’s happening here, but it is happening here.”
Ms Leslie has launched a crowdfunding page to raise money for research into the scale of the issue in the UK, and is encouraging researching bodies to come forward to carry out a comprehensive, nation-wide study on the issue.
“This is what is happening in a small school. We need to work out the scale of it now. It needs a proper research project on it — some funding and a university to come forward and do it, as well as more people to come forward to me and say this is happening in my school," she said.
“It’s about getting the information out there and collecting the information, because this is the tip of the iceberg. We don’t talk about it enough with young girls. There’s still a stigma attached to it which shouldn’t be there.”
Responding to the revelations, Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, told The Independent the Government was "failing" young girls, and urged that schools should be offered funding to provide pupils with the "fundamental" product.
Ms Phillips said: “This is an awful story. If we live in a society where girls cannot access sanitary products we are failing. I remember only too well the shame and worry of visiblly bleeding when I was at school. It is no surprise that if you cannot afford tampons you might stay of school.
"The Government must offer schools the means to provide girls with products which are not a luxury but a fundamental need, and question why in 2017 UK citizens cannot afford them.
“For the sake of girls the world over we must be less ashamed of talking about our periods.”