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Period Poverty in UK Higher Education: Addressing Stigma and Empowering Students

  • 22 January 2024
  • By Laura Coryton
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Laura Coryton MBE. Laura started and led the UK petition against tampon tax which gained over 300,000 signatures, successfully lobbied the government into establishing the Tampon Tax Fund which gave almost £100m to female-focused charities, ended tampon tax in 2021 and now supports sister petitions in every continent across the world. She also founded the social enterprise Sex Ed Matters CIC which delivers empowering period education to students across the UK and is the author of Speak Up!, a campaign guide for rebel girls published by Harper Collins.

Period poverty is a term that refers to the inability of individuals to access menstrual products, due to financial constraints, limited availability or stigma preventing them from seeking the essential products they need. This issue affects millions of people worldwide, including 36% of UK students. A lack of accessible menstrual products and the stigma surrounding menstruation can significantly impact students’ physical and mental health, as well as their academic success. In this article, we will explore period poverty rates in UK higher education, the impact of period stigma on students, and outline the strategies universities can adopt to combat this issue and empower students.

Numerous studies have highlighted the prevalence of period poverty in UK education institutions. According to a survey conducted by Plan International UK, nearly 25% of girls and women studying in higher education have struggled to access or afford menstrual products. This problem is only getting worse, as ActionAid records national period poverty rates have risen from 12% before the pandemic to 21% afterwards. The cost of living crisis has compounded the problem, as research by Russell Group Students Unions found 25% of university students go without necessities due to rising poverty levels, including period products. These statistics call for prompt action by universities to address this pressing issue and support students.

Period poverty presents many challenges to students, including the following.

Mental health

The shame and embarrassment related to menstruation can lead to anxiety, stress, and feelings of isolation among those affected. Such experiences can adversely affect students’ mental health and well-being, potentially compromising their academic performance. A study by Hey Girls UK found that around 15% of UK female students have experienced anxiety and depression due to period poverty and the related stress it causes. Furthermore, a study in France found that among those experiencing period poverty, 49.4% showed depressive symptoms compared to 28.6% of those who had not experienced menstrual poverty, and 40% showed anxious symptoms (vs 24.1%). This research concluded that “relationships between period poverty, depression are significant”. This will of course negatively impact a student’s ability to thrive at university and focus on their studies.

Academic implications

Significant research paints a worrying picture of the impact of period poverty on educational attainment. For example, Plan International UK found two million students in the UK miss school due to period poverty, as a shocking 77% of girls say they have felt less able to pay attention at school, college, or work because of their period, with nearly a third (32%) feeling this way at least once a month. Furthermore, a study in the USA found period poverty to be a leading reason girls miss class and exams, equating to billions of hours of missed education globally due to period stigma and poverty.

Furthermore, normal symptoms of menstruation including fatigue, headaches and pain, can impact concentration levels and educational attainment, which may be compounded if empowering period education is not provided and relevant prevention tactics are not discussed.

Physical health

Period poverty also puts students’ physical health at risk as those who can’t access period products often feel forced to turn to potentially dangerous alternatives. For example,  Plan International UK found that over half (54%) of girls experiencing period poverty have used toilet paper and socks as an alternative to period products and ActionAid found 41% kept sanitary pads or tampons in for longer, and 8% re-used disposable pads, which can cause infections, irritation and long-term health problems.

Disproportionate impact on marginalized groups

Students from low-income backgrounds or marginalised communities face a higher risk of experiencing period poverty. Charity Bloody Good Period has found low-income households are three times more likely to live in period poverty compared to those in higher-income households.

Acknowledging the existence of period poverty and addressing the impact it has on students is crucial for creating an inclusive and supportive environment within universities. Universities can take the following steps to tackle these challenges and empower students:

  1. Improve access to affordable menstrual products: Partnering with organisations, such as charities and student unions, can help universities distribute free or subsidised menstrual products on campus. Installing dispensers in all main washrooms or setting up schemes for easy and open collection can boost access for all students and make sure to promote the scheme as this can also help tackle the stigma.

    Lots of universities have achieved this successfully. For example, I’ve worked with the University of Nottingham on their pioneering scheme to eradicate period poverty on campus. Here, academics Chris Denning and Kavita Raniga have spearheaded the university’s ‘Project Period’, which successfully ensured period products are freely available in all bathrooms on campus and to all students, provided by donations, funding and volunteers. By January 2023, the project had distributed 45,000 menstrual products and the university has since ringfenced annual funding to sustain the project long-term.

  2. Promote education and awareness: many university students will have never had access to high-quality period education. A study in the USA found that 76% of students feel they know more about the biology of frogs than they do about the biology of the female body, including the process of menstruation. This lack of knowledge can deepen period stigma and prevent students from supporting each other simply because they don’t know how to help or what support might be needed.

    To overcome this, universities can organise awareness campaign, workshops and offer free, downloadable informative and engaging resources on period poverty, menstruation and campaigning to tackle period stigma. This will contribute to a more empathetic environment and challenge existing taboos.

  3. Implement supportive policies: universities can develop clear policies that address period poverty and ensure students have access to free menstrual products. These policies may include providing period products on campus; allowing students to request new collection points if areas have less access than others; reporting processes for any bullying or sexism which may occur in relation to menstruation; and support for students who may need more information or who might be experiencing health problems. One such problem, endometriosis, takes seven years on average to be diagnosed and many need support throughout this process.

  4. Empower student initiatives: Encouraging student-led initiatives, such as period poverty awareness campaigns, fundraisers, and volunteering programs, can empower students to take an active role in addressing this issue and making a big impact.

Period poverty and the associated stigma continue to hinder the wellbeing and academic success of students in UK higher education. To combat this challenge, universities must recognise and take proactive steps to address the issue. By improving access to affordable menstrual products, promoting education and awareness, implementing supportive policies, and empowering student initiatives, universities can create an environment where students feel able to challenge the burden of period poverty and stigma. Empowering students in this way can not only promote gender equality but also foster an inclusive and supportive higher education experience for all.

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