Food or sanitary products? The decision seems like a simple one on paper, but for the thousands of women in the UK who face it, things aren’t quite so easy. If you’re sleeping on the street and unable to afford tampons or pads, in a refuge or shelter with no access to these items, or else living below the poverty line, a period is more than just a pain, it’s a great big inconvenience. And when you consider that the average pack of tampons costs around £3, and that a woman will have her period around 450 times in her lifetime, it’s easy to see why.
Laura*, from the Wirral, experienced this dilemma first hand. She’d just had her third baby when her husband left her and she found herself without any money to support her family. She applied for Universal Credit, but in the meantime was still bleeding heavily after childbirth and scared of leaking when she left the house. Unable to buy sanitary towels, she started using disposable nappies she had been given in a care package; “Cutting up the nappies made me feel guilty that I was taking them from my baby daughter. I even looked online to see what women used in the past. I should have used maternity pads but didn’t have any, or the money to buy them,” she explains.
Laura’s story is not an uncommon one. In March of this year, a teacher in Leeds reported that pupils at her school were not coming in when they were having their periods, many because their families could not afford sanitary products. Elsewhere in Britain, some homeless women living on the streets have taken to ripping up bits of cloth or cotton and inserting them in public toilets, or using newspapers or socks, or stealing tampons from shops out of a lack of other options, a storyline seen in the welfare drama I, Daniel Blake. “Period poverty” – an umbrella term now used to describe a lack of access to feminine hygiene products for women – was previously thought of as an issue that only affects women and girls in the developing world, but that's simply not true.
Over the last five years, the number of people sleeping rough on Britain’s streets has doubled, with a specific increase in the number of women and families with nowhere left to go. As of this year, an estimated 68,000 women are living in shelters, temporary housing or on the streets, and according to research from the charity Shelter, a majority of women who try to access emergency accommodation are turned away. The situation is a direct result of cuts to council services, as well as stagnating wages and rising rent prices, which have also left an estimated 13.5 million Brits in households classified as poor.
Back in 2015, there was a lot of noise in the UK media around the issue of period poverty. It happened after three interns at the advertising company BBH set up a campaign called #TheHomelessPeriod in order to raise awareness. “We found this topic hadn’t really been spoken about before,” says Josie Shedon, who co-founded the initiative. “So we went round homeless shelters, talked to women, and set up a website and a petition for the issue to be addressed in parliament, as well as offering information on how to direct donations to homeless shelters.”
The campaign was a huge success: people around the UK and in other countries have seen it, taken note, and created local donation schemes. To this day, founders Josie, Oliver and Sarah still receive “three or four emails every day, maybe more, from people asking for advice, or sending in pictures of what they’ve donated.” On top of that, the campaign encouraged BodyForm to donate 200,000 pads to shelters by 2020, via the charity In Kind Direct, which is a bit like Amazon for charities – homeless shelters and women’s refuges can shop online for products their guests might need.
Despite the excellent progress made by #TheHomelessPeriod campaign however, many homeless women around the UK still can’t access these products, or face awkward prospects when they do. Sarah Scully, a caseworker at Glass Door homeless charity in London, says that, for women who get their period on the street, it can be difficult to find somewhere to change and apply the sanitary product. “I’m sure a lot of women also end up throwing out their underwear and possibly trousers if they don’t have access to a washing machine in a day centre,” she adds.
Sarah’s service Glass Door has always been able to prove a stock of sanitary products for guests, but they are one of the fortunate day centres in this regard as they receive a constant supply of donations, she explains. And still, options are limited: “If a woman is looking for a particular sanitary pad like light or heavy it may be that the one they are looking for is not always available, and pads are donated more than tampons which again suits some women and not others.” Sarah also notes that a lot of women might not feel comfortable asking for these products, depending on their background, culture and religion.
Laura was eventually able to access products for free via a support service called Birkenhead Early Excellence CIC – “I almost cried with joy,” she remembers – but says pads would go fast. Now that she receives money from Universal Credit, she has to plan carefully to buy sanitary towels each month. “This means I have to go without an evening meal at least one night a week, but that’s only happens once a month so I feel it’s manageable for me,” she says. And yet, if the products were cheaper, or altogether free this wouldn’t be an issue for her.
#TheHomelessPeriod’s online petition surpassed 100,000 signatures, which meant that the issues raised by the campaign were brought up in Parliament in December 2016. Nothing changed, but the provision of sanitary items for women living in poverty was raised in the House of Lords by Liberal Democrat Baroness Burt in March of this year after news of the schoolgirls in Leeds broke, and there is now an Early Day Motion circling for the same cause, which is a way for MPs to register their support for an issue.
As of July this year, the Scottish government has rolled out a trial scheme for providing 1000 girls from low-income families with sanitary products, making them the first country in the world to do so. The rest of the UK, however, falls behind. “It was a nice step forward for us to get a brand to take responsibility,” says Oliver from #TheHomelessPeriod campaign, of BodyForm’s donation. “But we need a long term solution to the issue, where governments and more corporations are taking it into their own hands to provide products [for homeless women and low-income families].”
Sarah is adamant that periods are bad enough, without women and girls having to go to extreme lengths to locate tampons and pads: “I feel any coverage on this issue needs to address the fact that women have to pay for these products full stop. If this wasn’t the case, then getting access to these products wouldn’t be a problem.” Laura feels the same: “I cringe now when I think about when I cut up the baby’s nappies. Having the correct sanitary protection is a basic need.”