Whether you’re usually a worrier or not, there’s little question that this year’s return to school has been somewhat more stressful than usual. Beyond the frantic labelling of shoes and uniform, exam concerns and new class woes, a whole new host of anxieties are at play – will my kids settle back into routine? Is school safe? Are we ready to get back to normal?
What many of us luckily will not have had to consider, beyond our new-found obsession with hand sanitising, is hygiene. Whether we can afford to launder uniforms daily. Whether we can afford the basic hygiene products our children need to thrive.
Yet, for many parents, in the wake of lockdown and in the midst of a mounting recession, hygiene poverty is a very real concern. And as shocking new research for British charity Beauty Banks shows, it can have a lasting and detrimental impact on education.
While one third of British teachers anticipate a rise in hygiene poverty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not a new issue. An astonishing 44 per cent say they’ve already witnessed children being bullied as a result of hygiene shaming, with 38 per cent saying they’ve offered their pupils items such as deodorant or toothpaste in a bid to help.
Further, 39 per cent of teachers say they’ve seen kids’ mental health suffer as a result of hygiene shaming, while 20 per cent say they’ve suffered depression themselves as a result of witnessing kids’ suffering.
Shame and stigma
“We identified the term hygiene shaming as a shame that is at the core of modern-day poverty,” explains Jo Jones, the co-founder of Beauty Banks, a charity that aims to distribute hygiene products to those who need them the most. “The pandemic has shone a light on this issue, with the focus on cleanliness and hygiene dramatically intensified.
“Now more than ever, if you can’t afford to be clean you can be stigmatised, victim-shamed and bullied and that stigma, that shame, is internalised, and you shame and blame yourself. It’s a catastrophic barrier to learning.”
Now, Jo, along with her co-founder, beauty writer Sali Hughes, has launched a new campaign, aiming to help Britain’s school children return to the classroom without personal hygiene becoming an additional worry.
Branded ‘The Kids Are Not Alright’, the initiative aims to not only raise awareness of hygiene shaming, but to help in a practical way, collecting unwanted, surplus and donated hygiene products, from deodorant and toothpaste to soap and sanitary wares, to distribute to children in need through school-issued personal care packs.
The organisation is also lobbying brands directly to donate unused and surplus products, and launching a kids-4-kids programme that encourages children in schools largely unaffected by hygiene poverty to fundraise and support schools in a less fortunate position.
“Shame makes children and adolescents feel small, humiliated and bad about themselves,” says Sali Hughes, Beauty Banks’ co-founder. “The effects of shame are connected to depression and anxiety disorders – all of which make learning harder and friendships more challenging.
“These matter hugely in a child’s life and consequently, in a teacher’s. We cannot in any good conscience allow children to feel life-limiting shame over a lack of deodorant, toothpaste and soap. We need to help teachers to give kids the hygiene essentials they need to thrive.”
While hygiene poverty might not be something that is at the forefront of minds amid the anxiety currently plaguing the nation, its impact can be catastrophic – something Jones and Hughes realised back when they founded Beauty Banks in early 2018. Since then, the pair have helped tens of thousands of people, pairing up with foodbanks, homeless shelters and women’s refuges to ensure no one has to live without the basic hygiene products most of us take for granted.
The charity, which has just one member of staff and is run almost entirely by volunteers, co-founders included, actually saw an increase in help during lockdown, with swathes of people coming forward to help get deliveries to those in need.
Nonetheless, the need to move into schools, Jones says, has become heartbreakingly apparent. “One of the key reasons we set up Beauty Banks was because Sali and I had – still have – friends who are teachers in state schools. What they told us about hygiene and period poverty in the classroom appalled us.
“We didn’t think it was right that a teacher on a not-great salary was providing hygiene and sanitary products for their pupils out of their own pocket to keep these kids in school and keep them learning. The bullying because of the shame of hygiene poverty is also intolerable – being a teen is hard enough.”
For those youngsters already affected, the impact of hygiene poverty goes a long way beyond classroom bullying. While that in itself can be devastating, evidence suggests that youngsters who grow up in hygiene poverty are also far less likely to reach their academic potential.
“There is a growing body of qualitative evidence that hygiene poverty has a very significant negative impact on school attendance, achievement, mental health and wellbeing,” explains educational psychologist Joyce Fullarton. “Recent research has reported that girls who experience hygiene poverty are more likely to experience stress, anxiety and depression, lack confidence and find it hard to socialise. They are less likely to be successful in GCSE exams and unlikely to sit A Levels.
“Not only is their educational outcome affected but their sense of self can be badly damaged by their feelings of shame and by being targeted by their peers. Hygiene poverty is a longstanding worldwide issue and one that should not exist in the 21st Century.”
While tackling hygiene poverty and its wide-reaching impact is a complex challenge, Beauty Banks is aiming to make it as easy as possible for the public to get involved in helping offer a hand-up to children in need.
The charity has teamed up with Superdrug and GoFundMe to offer a two-pronged approach to receiving donations. If you have unused products in your bathroom cabinet, or a stockpile gathered in preparation for lockdown, donating them to the cause is easy – drop-off points can be found in Superdrug stores across the UK, with products left there distributed in support packs to schools, foodbanks and other charities.
A GoFundMe page, meanwhile, allows those who don’t have products to spare to donate cash instead, funding the purchase of essential items such as soap, shower gel, toothpaste and toothbrushes, to help families facing up to the realities of hygiene poverty.
“To ensure our products get in the right hands, we don’t serve the end user, but instead serve registered charities who distribute them on our behalf,” Jones explains. “We also don’t have the infrastructure to serve individuals so this approach keeps us lean as a charity and able to ensure every penny that the public donates to us goes to serving those who need it. Families in need should contact their local foodbank and ask them to contact us and we will send them a delivery if we have the donations to do so.”
For those of us in a more fortunate position, however, the message is clear. Whether it’s unused toiletries, money or time, every donation will go to helping those who need it.
“Right now it’s incredibly difficult as so many people are having a hard and uncertain time because of the aftermath of the pandemic,” Jones says. “There is so much job insecurity and worry about the future.
“The poverty picture was bleak pre-covid. Post-covid, it’s going to get a lot worse. We see our job as making a big fuss and a big noise and trying to get people who aren’t in this situation to help those who are. To provide a hand-up, not a hand-out to those in their communities who need it. Because let’s face it, one day that could be any one of us.”
Want to support the campaign? Donate via the GoFundMe page here, or get in touch on email via email@example.com