Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, doctor, and Conservative activist in the West Midlands
I must confess to coming relatively late to the party on this one. I can make all the usual excuses: it doesn’t affect me; if it were such an issue people would speak up about it; surely the scale of the problem is not really that bad.
I also have a conflict of interest to declare. It was, in fact, my wife who educated me on this issue, through her work raising the profile of the problem in our home city of Birmingham.
Like most men, I suspect, periods were not at the top of my list of significant issues that affected people’s day-to-day lives. As a doctor one understood the associated medical complications, but I had failed to fully understand the hidden issue of ‘period poverty’.
ActionAid, a multinational charity focussed on addressing poverty and injustice, described the problem as follows:
“Periods are a natural process that are a part of nearly every girl’s life. But without access to toilets or sanitary products at school, girls’ lives are put on hold during their period, as they have little choice but to stay at home.”
In this case they were describing the issuing of schoolgirls in Africa struggling with juggling their periods with maintaining their school attendance. The quotation however could be just as apposite here in the UK.
As we move into 2018, we live in a society where 15 per cent of women aged 14-21 struggle to afford sanitary wear. Furthermore, 12 per cent of women in the same age group have resorted to using improvised sanitary products due to the inability to afford the cost. The further implication is the knock on effect on school and higher education attendance.
Up until recently this has been a taboo subject. A hidden problem. Thankfully, as a result of work by people like my wife, the issue has been brought into the mainstream.
There is a danger that issues such as this become the preserve of the left. The Conservative Party is in danger of allowing itself to be portrayed as out of touch and uncaring. Whilst its members know this to be untrue, we have a responsibility to persuade the country otherwise.
As a One Nation Conservative, I believe in our duty to support those most vulnerable in society and provide them with the opportunity to reach their potential. It flies in the face of those principles for young women to miss out on life opportunities due to their inability to afford sanitary products.
The research to date has been carried out by charities and campaign groups. It is time for a cross-party committee to work alongside them to truly understand the scale of the problem. It is only by understanding the depth of the issue that we can hope to tackle it.
I have purposely focussed my thoughts on the younger generation. There are, of course, many women over the age of 21 who are similarly affected. The issues there are potentially more complex and multifactorial and action would inevitably affect the welfare state.
The issue amongst 14-21 year olds is arguably clearer. Action amongst this group can significantly affect life chances. Getting this right matters and will ensure they are better placed to achieve their aspirations.
The solution is not inexpensive but, at the same time, the cost not so extortionate to make it unviable. In 2016-17 the UK’s spending on education topped £102bn. Based upon the #FreePeriods campaign, it would cost approximately £4.78m to provide schoo-aged girls with free sanitary care, this is presuming that females use 4-5 sanitary products each day they menstruate, and on average menstruation occurs for 68 days per year. Compared with the burden of lost opportunities from poor school attendance, this is surely relative whitebait.
Within Parliament there is a growing consensus on the issue of period poverty. Gaining broad cross-party support will take little difficulty. This is a genuine opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of young women.
Rather than shy away from it, a Conservative Government should be at the vanguard fighting against this injustice. This is who we are as a Party and it should be our resolution to demonstrate that to those who doubt us.