A recent feature on BBC news has put the issue of period poverty back in the public domain. But how big an issue is this, and what, if anything, can we do about it?
What is Period Poverty?
Period poverty – or not having enough money to afford sanitary products - is an issue that affects lower income families in the UK, and all over the world. The cost of purchasing essential products to enable girls and women to deal with their periods with dignity can soon mount up, particularly in households where every penny counts, and in countries where access to these products is limited and expensive. This leads to girls and women making do with unhygienic alternatives ranging from scraps of material, wads of toilet paper or tissue in the UK, to leaves and mud in African countries. For many individuals on a tight budget, there will be the temptation to purchase higher absorbency products so they last for longer and less items are needed – this is known to be incredibly unsafe, especially with tampons, and increases the risk of toxic shock syndrome, which can be fatal. I have four teenage daughters, so this issue really resonates with me, and it’s something that I’m regularly contacted about in relation to my work.
Having your period is something you really have no choice about, it’s a normal bodily function, and deserves to be treated with dignity. We wouldn’t expect people to visit the toilet without access to toilet paper to clean up. We would treat any other sort of bleeding by providing a suitable product to absorb it and keep the area clean. So why are periods different?
Homeless and Periods
Women and girls in the UK* don’t get any assistance with their period products, even if they are on a very low income or are benefits dependent (*Scotland has recently announced plans to make products available free in schools). Even more worryingly, women and girls who are homeless get no help with this issue at all. Homeless men can get free access to razors to shave. There is free provision of condoms. But no provision of products to cope with the inevitable monthly bleeding. I’m sure most menstruating individuals can imagine that trying to cope with your period without any access to sanitary protection, while homeless, is something of a nightmare. Having dignity during your period seems like a basic human right to most of us, and yet this is something that sadly, many girls and women simply do not have, and it’s all down to money. Campaign group #TheHomelessPeriod are trying to tackle this issue, with a petition which has so far received 110,000 signatures, and succeeded in having the issue raised in parliament in December 2016.
The issue is even more stark in other countries around the world. Let me share with you a typical example, and how you can do something to help.
An Example From Africa
In 2015 I was fortunate enough to meet Nancy Hunt, director of the Nasio Trust, when she and I were both winners in our categories at the National Venus Awards. Nancy and I got talking at the awards ceremony, and she told me about her charity, and about the fact that many girls in Kenya are missing out on school for a few days every month because of lack of sanitary products. The Nasio Trust works with HIV orphans, and so we put our heads together to come up with a long term solution that would help to tackle the problem. Nancy had approached me because in the part of Kenya where the Nasio Trust operates, there is no easy access to sanitary products, and no refuse collections or sanitation for disposal of single use products, so she was keen to find a solution that was dignified, reusable and discreet.
We developed a low cost reusable sanitary pad, Earthwise Pads, available in 3 sizes, and made them available to buy in the UK in special Buy 3 Give 1 packs – for every pack of 3 sold, a pad of the same size is donated to the girls supported by the Nasio Trust. We make these available both directly through our own website, and via stockists. This project has been highly successful, and over the last 2 years, over 2,000 donated reusable pads have been funded by the sales of these packs. In addition to the pads, we also gave the Nasio Trust staff important information about washing and caring for the pads, which is passed on to the girls when they receive their products. Feedback has been excellent, with 100% of the girls reporting that they found them easy to clean and kept the pads for future use. Feedback indicated that they would like more pads so they can use them all the time during their period, and 95% gave the pads a comfortable or very comfortable rating.
There are many other such initiatives operating in other countries, such as the Eco Femme brand in India, and Rubycup menstrual cups who also operate in Kenya. Many of the projects aiming to tackle period poverty in less developed countries are supported by reusable menstrual brands, both from the UK and other countries.
When you read about issues like this, it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing you can do to make a difference, however I would suggest that is far from the truth, and everyone can help, you don’t need to be someone who has periods to appreciate the issues, and you don’t need to be someone who has periods to want to help.
How Can You Help?
How to help in the UK - most food banks will accept donations of unopened packs of single use sanitary pads or tampons, so next time you’re popping something into the food bank donation point, consider including something from the feminine hygiene aisle. You could also consider donating products to your nearest women shelter or womens refuge. Also please look up the Homeless Period and sign and share their petition.
How to help around the world – you can support girls around the world who suffer from period poverty by choosing to support brands that are actively working to combat the issue. There are many brands who do this in a variety of ways, including (but not limited to) Earthwise, Eco Femme, Mooncup, Rubycup and Lunapads.
If you work with a charity and would like to obtain reusable pads at low cost - we do have support available for charities wishing to supply reusable pads to women and girls in the UK and abroad, please get in touch if you’d like more information about this.
The Homeless Period – sign the petition and keep this issue on the national agenda http://thehomelessperiod.com/
The Nasio Trust reports on the difference made by donations of reusable sanitary pads http://www.sponsorachildinneed.com/earthwise-sanitary-pads-make-a-big-difference-at-township-primary/