As long as sanitary ware is classified as a "non-essential" and "luxury" item, and isn't given out for free like condoms, homeless women may be forced to shoplift for tampons and towels, or resort to using tissue from McDonald's toilets.
No woman actively looks forward to getting her period. Even after decades of menstruating, it can be a painful, expensive hassle every month that leaves you feeling completely flattened. But if you're a woman living on the street, having a period isn't a hassle – it's a nightmare. Because if you can't muddle together enough money for food or shelter, it is unlikely you'll be able to afford sanitary towels or tampons.
Bar shoplifting, the options for menstruating homeless women can be incredibly limited. It's often possible to access tampons and towels at homeless shelters and hostels, but what do you do if they're full-up? Given that there's no standard practice of giving out supplies at sexual health clinics – unlike condoms, say – and that it isn't possible to be prescribed sanitary wear at a doctor's surgery, as a woman in need, there are very few services you can turn to.
Sanitary ware in this country is classed as a "luxury, non-essential item" and is taxed at 5 percent. Precisely what could be considered luxurious about stemming the monthly blood flow that, as women, we don't really have much say over, is a perpetual question. But without the means to purchase these simple "luxuries", homeless women are constantly forced to go without.
I visited a women-only housing centre in London to try and get an idea of what women without the means to buy tampons or towels do each month. Zoe, 21, told me that she was routinely caught short. "When I was on the streets, I actually found it easier to get food or toothbrushes than stuff for my periods," she says. "There was nowhere to find that stuff and I was obviously too embarrassed to ask strangers for it."
"I remember sometimes my old school friends would walk past while I was begging around Camden and I'd be able to ask them if they had anything but obviously that was just down to chance," she continues. In the end, she'd often have to resort to shoplifting – something she really didn't want to do. "I used to hide the tampons under coats and jumpers," she says, arguing that it would be mortifying to be caught shoplifting for anything, but that if she'd been caught stealing tampons it would have been "so much worse."
Zoe became homeless after things took a sour turn with her boyfriend. "We were living together but we both had drug problems and weren't very nice to each other," she explains. "At one point we thought we'd marry each other but things didn't work out so I started staying at all these different places". Zoe would go from place to place, but eventually those places dried up. "I'd find myself walking around outside all night because I was too scared to go to sleep," she says. At the age of 20, she found herself on the streets for six months. During this time, periods were just one of the myriad burdens she faced.
How on earth are we in a position where women – who, it bears repeating, have absolutely no choice over whether their womb lining sheds each month – are having to sneak into McDonald's toilets and make do with stuffing toilet paper into the knickers to stop them bleeding through their clothes?
At the time, Zoe was so underweight that her periods were often irregular. This sounds bleakly fortuitous, but that irregularity meant that she "wouldn't have one for ages" and it would then "come really unexpectedly and be so painful. It would make me feel really weak. I'd be shaking." She visibly recoils as she's talking. "I've put all this to the back my mind because it was so embarrassing and so horrible," she says. Listening to her, the idea of experiencing those hot, disabling cramps while wandering the streets because you're scared of staying in one place makes me wince.
Couldn't she have asked a shelter for some supplies? No, she says, because she had no idea they'd give them out. Nor did she have implicit trust in certain shelters letting her in at all. "People used to come up to me and say, 'There's this really great place you can go and they'll save you,' but sometimes you couldn't trust them," she says. "It's not always as simple as people think. These places don't always let you in". Thankfully, Zoe was eventually housed in a hostel and has been there for six months.
Another woman in the hostel I visited, Ava, 25, also struggled to access anything for her periods while on the streets. She frequently relied on McDonalds toilets: "I'd roll a tissue up and use it as a sanitary towel," she says, matter-of-factly. "There are ways around it." Ava ended up on the streets because her ex-husband kicked her out of the flat that she was, in fact, paying the rent for. She slept rough for four months in total.
"I still don't understand why tampons and pads aren't free," she says, raising her voice. "If the government can supply us with aqueous cream and other prescriptions, why can't they provide money for our feminine care?" And the more you ask yourself this same question, as a woman, the more absurd it seems. How on earth are we in a position where women – who, it bears repeating, have absolutely no choice over whether their womb lining sheds each month – are having to sneak into McDonald's toilets and make do with stuffing toilet paper into the knickers to stop them bleeding through their clothes?
Perhaps Britain's homeless services are too geared towards men to consider the simple provision of sanitary ware. A report from St Mungo's, which looks into women's experience of homelessness, says: "Male focused services often fail to comprehensively address the needs of their female service users. Expecting women to simply fit into homelessness services which have been designed for homeless men is not good enough. Service providers must understand the particular needs of homeless women."
Most homeless shelters do have supplies of tampons and pads for women to use, but the women I met didn't seem to know that they were routinely available. So what use is that? Asking for a box of tampons can be embarrassing – it's an intimate product for an intimate problem. Especially if a young woman has to ask for it from a male member of staff.
Grace Wore, a support worker at Women at the Well, a charity drop-in centre for homeless women, says the "embarrassment factor" means women often find it awkward to seek help. "We provide sanitary ware here, but it's very busy and I can see that women often struggle to ask. It's obviously a very private thing – which is also made worse if you're very hormonal and not feeling great". For any woman who struggles with PMS – or its more severe manifestation, PMDD – the idea of dealing with the fierce hormonal and physical turmoil that can come with a period each month is bad enough. The idea of having to deal with it on the street, or in unfamiliar surroundings, is terrifying.
Wore says women often won't ask for fear that they don't have anything, too, because a lot of stock is dependent on donations. She also says it's very rare for individuals to donate sanitary stuff to hostels because it's just not something that really occurs to people. Instead, most of their supplies come from companies like FareShare, who redistribute toiletries that have been sitting in shops for too long. But if the service get really low on donations, women are forced to go out and buy them themselves.
For the women sleeping rough who often have limited contact with shelters, drop-in centres or outreach teams, sanitary ware or any kind of period ephemera is scarce. There's no drawers of greying, saggy period knickers to reach for. No hot water bottles. No ibuprofen. No enormous bars of Dairy Milk. Homeless women move from one unsafe, unpredictable situation to another and are likely to just have to deal with cramps and discomfort while on the move. They may never feel clean. And, even if they do have a supply of tampons or towels, irregular access to toilets can make it difficult to change them regularly – something that could, potentially, lead to infections like toxic shock syndrome.
We give out condoms for free for good reason – safe sex and preventing against the transmission of STIs is an absolute imperative – but why can't we do the same for pads and tampons?
Access to provisions is one thing, but if you're on the streets, privacy becomes a distant memory, too. Washing in public toilets, as another woman at the hostel told me, becomes the norm. However, popping to the loo to do that can be tricky when you need to find somewhere busy enough not to be noticed. Also, with most of those grey, spaceship-like public toilets now charging up to a pound per use, it's hardly surprising that McDonald's toilets are a sanctuary.
It seems strange that over 80 years have passed since Dr Earle Haas patented the first modern tampon, but women who have lost their way are still being forced to stuff tissue down their knickers every month.
If menstrual care was classed as healthcare, sanitary ware would be free and available on prescription for all. For every woman who menstruates, tampons and towels are as essential toilet paper – unless you want to walk around covered in your own viscera, you can't live without it.
We give out condoms for free for good reason – safe sex and preventing against the transmission of STIs is an absolute imperative – but why can't we do the same for pads and tampons? Particularly when they're classed as "sexual health" items. Women spend an average of over 3,000 days of their lives menstruating. Thus, having a period – moreover, a vagina – turns out to be rather costly.
If the 5 percent taxation on sanitary ware seems ridiculous now, it's worth remembering it was only reduced to that in 2001, following years of campaigning for a "zero rate" of tax. Before 2001, sanitary ware was taxed at the full rate of 17.5 percent. Still, our need for products that stop us bleeding all over ourselves is considered "non-essential".
It's hard to envision what, precisely, it's thought we should be doing instead? Using an old, rolled-up T-shirt? A medical pessary of shorn wool, like women in Tudor England? It's made all the more absurd, too, when you consider that, in the UK, exotic meats like crocodile and kangaroo are classed as essential products which are exempt from tax. Other zero-tax things include: bingo, Jaffa Cakes, houseboat moorings and incontinence products. The latter are, it must be said, often indiscernible from the more robust end of the sanitary towel spectrum.
With increasing numbers of women finding themselves homeless – roughly one in ten rough sleepers in London are women – it's patently clear that not enough is being done to provide free sanitary wear for a completely unavoidable, biological regularity. Of all the battles faced by homeless women, the struggle of how to cope with your period is one of needless humiliation and distress. Tampons are not a luxury. Period.
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