"I've had three periods in 28 days and I haven't been able to afford sanitary products. I've not used anything," 20-year-old Anna* tells me. "Do you know how gross it feels?"
Last year, the government made sanitary products free in schools across the country in an effort to tackle period poverty. But with most schools and youth centres closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many young women and girls have been unable to access them.
A new report has found that three in 10 young women and girls across the UK are struggling to access sanitary towels, tampons and other period products during the lockdown and over half (54%) have been forced to use toilet paper instead. The study, conducted by Plan International UK, a children's charity which campaigns for equality for girls, also found that one in five girls (20%) had been unable to access toilet roll due to stockpiling.
Sixty-four percent said they couldn't find sanitary towels in their local shops, while 17% feared catching coronavirus and 15% said they had been unable to leave the house to go shopping during lockdown. The survey, which was carried out in April on 1,010 girls aged 14-21, also revealed that a third (30%) felt too embarrassed to seek out free products, while another 30% didn't know who to ask.
Three in 10 young women and girls across the UK are struggling to access sanitary products and 50% have been forced to use toilet paper.
Anna, who asked for her real name not to be used, says she has been forced to go without sanitary products during the lockdown because she has been unable to access and afford them. She tells me her mum or support worker usually drives her to the local budget supermarkets, Aldi or Lidl. But under social distancing rules, they can no longer do this. "Tesco and Co-op are the closest supermarkets to me now. But on a low income, buying expensive sanitary products isn't feasible."
Anna, who used to be homeless, lives alone in supported accommodation in Manchester. She has been unable to work due to mental health issues and relies on receiving £230 a month in universal credit benefits. However the lockdown has forced her to prioritise her bills, council tax and phone bill, which means sacrificing items in her weekly shop. "Not only am I buying less shopping but it's more expensive. I used to eat two meals a day and now I'm only eating one, while also sacrificing my sanitary products. Instead of buying shower gel, I'll buy soap."
Before lockdown, my periods were regular and I would chance it. But I've had three periods this month and I've just had to go without. I haven't moved from the same spot for days because of it, I'm embarrassed to leave the house.
She adds that the lockdown has made it very hard for her to cope. "It has been awful. Before lockdown, my periods were regular and I would chance it. But I've had three periods this month and I've just had to go without. I haven't moved from the same spot for days because of it, I'm embarrassed to leave the house.
"Someone asked me why I don't use toilet paper, but toilet paper is hard enough to get hold of anyway."
Joe Levenson from the Young Women’s Trust, a charity Anna is involved with, tells Refinery29: "Many girls and young women were struggling financially before this crisis began. But we have heard over the last few weeks just how much harder things have become as many aren’t able to shop around and instead only have a limited choice in local shops.
"These findings put into stark contrast the unfair compromises women have to make from such a young age."
Rose Caldwell, CEO of Plan International UK, says: "Lockdown has exacerbated the already prevalent problem of period poverty in the UK.
"As we look to an uncertain future, many more families will face tough financial choices, and more young women than ever are likely to face issues affording the products they need. We must commit to ensuring they are supported with free access to products, receive timely education on periods and feel able to talk about the issues they face without fear of shame or stigma.
"We encourage all girls who are struggling to access the products they need to speak to someone rather than use alternatives like toilet roll that won’t be as effective. Check in with your school or local food bank in the first instance, as many still have free products available and may be able to help."
*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee's identity
If you'd like to donate sanitary products to those in need, you can do so at Bloody Good Period here.