The term ‘period poverty’ has rocketed to the mainstream consciousness in the last five years; with campaigns being discussed in Parliament, big charities launching enquiries and investigations into the situation across communities, and donations of period products to foodbanks increasing exponentially after a scene depicted in the film I, Daniel Blake, made cinemas full of people burst into tears simultaneously.
Period poverty describes the form of poverty where those who menstruate are unable to access safe or hygienic products to manage their periods properly. It’s something that has long been associated with low-income women in developing nations that somehow seem very, very far away… yet actually, it’s right here in the UK too. 1 in 10 British women can’t afford to buy menstrual products and 1 in 7 have struggled at some point to.
Where I live in Norfolk, an ambitious Library Assistant set up a scheme known as The Tricky Period – where anyone can access free period products at any library in the county. Those who are able donate products, and those who need them pick them up. It is run simply, with no cost and uses just a storage box in each building. Libraries are ideal for this kind of scheme because they’re free to enter, are accessible by all and staffed with well-trained and non-judgmental people. I work as the Volunteer Coordinator for this scheme at its central location in Norwich city’s main library and the experience has been eye-opening. It’s taught me lots, and here’s just some of points on period poverty that most people don’t realise.
1. Not everyone that menstruates is female and not all women menstruate
There’s been some debate in the news recently about the term ‘menstruating people’ and as someone manning the front line in tackling period poverty, I’m here to tell you: it’s correct! Plenty of non-binary people and transgender men menstruate, as well as others with various gender identities who wouldn’t describe themselves as a ‘woman’. Know the phrase “pretty is not the rent you pay to exist in the world”? Similarly, femininity isn’t the rent paid to access healthy, hygienic periods.
2. Period poverty is often temporary
Everyone who menstruates has been out and about and felt that dull ache that signals your period is well and truly on its way… right before you realise, you don’t have anything on you to deal with it. If you don’t have any way to then pick up what you need to do manage your period hygienically, you’re experiencing period poverty – simply because the things you need aren’t free, but they are necessary. However, a lot of circumstances that result in period poverty don’t last forever. Many people suffering in period (and wider hygiene) poverty do so because of a result of benefit delays, unexpected bills or expenditure, an abnormally heavy flow, or a lack of income. Thankfully, being unable to afford period products is often not permanent.
3. We’re not just mopping up period blood
Whilst even the term ‘period poverty’ infers menstrual blood, realistically, products are used for a lot more than that. A lot of period poverty services give out incontinence pads, but standard pantyliners and sanitary towels are also used for spotting, post-surgery bleeding (very common with both transgender and cisgender women), post-contraceptive implementation bleeding (for example, after having an IUD fitted), lochia (post-giving birth discharge) and even for cuts and anal issues.
4. Using ‘sustainable’ products isn’t always practical
When working with donated period products, staff and volunteers are often asked by people why they’re not promoting menstrual cups and washable pads. The short answer usually is “we don’t really get them donated”, and that’s true; but to be honest, there’s only so many of them most period poverty services need. Many people accessing free period products don’t have the facilities to properly wash and sterilise reusable products, and some have medical reasons for choosing not to. Sustainable and reusable period products are awesome, and they have their place, but unfortunately they can’t be the ‘go-to’ option for everyone.
5. It ain’t all about about money!
Any article on period poverty online will attract reams of comments lamenting the cheap prices of products available and question why anyone would need them for free. For some people, there truly is a choice to be made between food and tampons. However, other circumstances contribute to period poverty too. Many people in coercive situations find themselves having access to products restricted by their abusers, some are physically unable to enter shops or pharmacies to find what they need, some find owning products stigmatised for religious or cultural reasons, some have no one to ask to make purchases for them, and some just can’t access what they need when they need it.
6. Period products have expiry dates
Whilst those donating to foodbanks have a tendency to do so with fresh produce they’ve just bought, donations to period poverty causes often aren’t quite so instant. Lots of donors find unused period products in the backs of their cupboards and bring them in – but they need checking first, because period products have sell-by dates! Most tampons and pads have some form of chemical on, but also, they begin to disintegrate and attract bacteria after a set amount of time. The oldest I’ve seen so far is a pack of Tampax from 1981… before I was even born!
7. The Tampon Tax funds some pretty badass stuff
The term ‘Tampon Tax’ refers to all of the revenue earned from VAT on period products. It’s actually due to be scrapped post-Brexit, but until then, it remains pretty unpopular. That said, the money raised is currently ring-fenced and spent exclusively on women’s charities. Since 2015, it’s raised £47million for good causes caring for vulnerable women, including the founding of new support job roles and even some period poverty initiatives! It’s not ideal, and it’s not a fair cost, but at least it is currently doing some good.
The Crimson Wave is surfed by lots of us and in many different ways, but it’s probably fair to say none of us love it. Aunt Flo brings hassle and stress to many and if you can help ease that worry for others, please do – and seek out your local period poverty organisation to donate to!
The featured image on this post was taken by Gabrielle Rocha Rios for Unsplash.