The Price of Periods: why do homeless women have to beg for tampons?
Ah, periods. Your insides feel like they are being scraped away with a spoon, like egg from a shell, and there’s this weird dragging sensation in your womb. I spend most of the time in the bath or curled up on the sofa with a hot water bottle, a box of paracetamol and a block of Cathedral City cheddar.
Despite what the big names in the period business tell us, there is no good time to be ‘on’. No-one in their right mind would willingly wear a tight, white playsuit and stay out until dawn without constantly having to dash to the loo to make sure all is in order.
Menstruation is a common complaint in the house I share with my best friend. Getting ready for a night out when you’re on your period is a military operation involving knickers large enough to make Bridget Jones cringe, two pairs of tights, and at least ten minutes of “yes, but can you see anything?”.
I don’t care what anyone says – at work, at school, on a 15-hour flight back from Hong Kong – getting your period is never a great experience, but with a good arsenal of supplies it’s bearable and we women folk are able to function.
But what if you didn’t have access to these supplies? What if you couldn’t dash to the corner shop when you’re caught short? What if you had to choose between buying food or purchasing a necessary item to stop yourself from bleeding? What if you lived on the streets and had to beg?
The options for menstruating homeless women are extremely limited and disheartening.
Yes, it’s occasionally possible to access tampons and pads at homeless shelters, but these resources are incredibly stretched. As it stands, sexual health clinics and GP surgeries do not give out sanitary supplies – unlike condoms and the contraceptive pill – and until very recently they were even considered a ‘luxury’ item.
“I remember having a conversation with a male friend about the cost of being a woman and buying tampons and pads,” says Christina Ward, who heads up The Monthly Gift. She’s very kindly agreed to chat to me about her fantastic charitable efforts as she takes her lunch break. “He said to me, ‘Well, I always thought you got all that from the doctor.’”
“I began thinking about the cost of living as a woman, such as buying tampons each month, and I realised that there would be so many homeless women unable to access proper sanitary products.”
As a result, Ward set up The Monthly Gift to encourage donations of sanitary products for homeless women. Working in association with The Mustard Tree based on Manchester’s Booth Street, the campaign has received donations from schools, local businesses and members of the public at drop off points in the city such as vintage store COW, Tea Hive, Night and Day Café and RCNQ.
“It started off as a month-long campaign in July 2015 and finished with a fundraising gig at Night and Day and went on from there.”
I feel guilty when she says this. It’s not really something I have given much thought to despite living in a city like Manchester where our homeless population is heartbreakingly prolific and on the rise (figures show that the number of people on the streets in Greater Manchester increased by 50 per cent in the last year alone).
When I moved back to Manchester after a brief spell away, I was surprised by the amount of homeless people in the city centre. “Sometimes it seems as if there are three people to a street,” Ward agrees sadly.
It wasn’t until my friend Jess told me about a charity box she’d seen in Cow that I really started to think about the effectiveness of The Monthly Gift campaign.
After spending time researching the statistics around homeless women, I was surprised to find that females only make up around a quarter of the overall homeless total. Is this the reason why issues relating specifically to women have been severely overlooked? Possibly.
As I delved further into the matter online, reading some of the ways in which women are forced to deal with menstruation (socks, bits of old clothing, even rolled-up newspaper), it became apparent that The Monthly Gift and organisations like it – including Time of the Month and Every Month in Manchester and The Homeless Period Petition – are crucial in preventing women from being forced to live in such an undignified situation.
Not only are these groups ensuring that fewer homeless women are having to beg for or even go without sanitary products, they are also helping to bring the conversation concerning periods into the public sphere.
As a society we are conditioned not to talk about periods. Tampons come in discreet packaging (I remember hiding them up my sleeve at school and sneaking off to the loos before anyone noticed). Adverts show off their products in a conveniently neat manner using a weird blue goo rather than anything that resembles blood. People make ‘time of the month’ jokes as though we’re still in the playground. Teenagers are taught separately about ‘bodily issues,’ which is problematic in itself when we think of gender identity and issues.
“The support from schools has been fantastic and not just the girls either. Lots of young people have wanted to donate and expressed an interest in social action. We’ve had great support from men too. They came to the gigs and made donations. We’ve had so many donations from local schools. It has been amazing.”
The subject of menstruation, and more specifically the public attitude towards sanitary products, is certainly garnering attention. But we still have to fight for it.
The 5 per cent tax on tampons and pads was lifted earlier in the year but only after much petitioning, deliberation and discussion. It seems strange that we still don’t discuss periods in the public arena, especially when keeping quiet could mean that vulnerable women don’t have access to what I consider to be a basic right. We aren’t talking about razors or make-up which are, of course, luxury items, but an absolute necessity.
So why has this necessity not been extended to vulnerable women? Why isn’t the Government providing tampons and towels via homeless shelters as they do with condoms? After all, you don’t stop being a woman just because you’re forced to sleep rough. Periods don’t magically disappear.
This is where The Monthly Gift steps up. It’s all about creating awareness and education, of liaising with schools and the public, and simply starting a conversation. I wonder what’s next for Ward.
“I’m really hoping to get more boxes done soon,” she says. “There has been a great reception to the campaign and all of the Manchester groups work together. I have a meeting this week with the organiser of Every Month to discuss future events, and this Monday was the opening night of Women in Print [an exhibition of 16 local artists celebrating the role of women in Manchester] which I am really excited about [Women in Print is home to one of The Monthly Gift’s donation boxes].”
Women should not have to beg for tampons!
It’s Not Grim Up North is Emma Yates-Badley’s blog for Northern Soul. It documents her thoughts and her rekindled love affair with the city of Manchester.
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