Managing your menstruation in a luxury villa, with hot water bottle and painkillers, can already be a daunting task. Try being homeless and on your period.
When your first priority is having a roof over your head, plus something to eat. When living on the streets, it’s time for innovative solutions: stealing paper towels from public toilets, in McDonald’s for example. Or stuffing old newspapers in your pants. Because in such a situation, sanitary pads are simply too expensive.
Homelessness is a growing problem. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, on any one night 3,596 people are sleeping rough across England, most of them in London and the South East. These figures, which don’t include people in shelters, are of 2015. The number of rough sleepers, which has been steadily increasing since 2010, is counted on the streets and/or estimated by local authorities.
26% of people in shelters are women
Sleeping rough and being homeless isn’t the same; there is no official figure of how many people are homeless across the UK. That’s because there’s a lot of hidden homelessness; people who live in squats or temporarily stay with family members or friends. In 2015/2016, 114,790 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance in England (Wales and Scotland added about another 50,000 applications).
Of the homeless people in England, women make up about 12% of the rough sleepers and 26% of the clients of homelessness services. It’s thought females make up a larger part of the hidden homeless, for example when they’re crashing on a friend’s couch or hiding from a violent ex-partner. With the average life expectancy of a homeless woman being just 43 years, it’s safe to say nearly all of them have to deal with menstruation.
Condoms are free, but tampons not
A report by the British organisation St. Mungo’s – which offers assistance to about 2,500 homeless people a night- states that the male-focused services often fail to address the needs of their female 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.”
The need for free sanitary products, for example. Free condoms are given out in sexual health clinics throughout the UK, but the same can’t be said for tampons or sanitary towels. And whereas homeless shelters get an allowance from the government to buy contraceptives, it’s up to each charity to search funds for sanitary items.
In 2015, advertising interns Sara Bakhaty, Oliver Frost and Josephine Shedden set up a campaign called The Homeless Period, which soon received over 100,000 signatures. Its goal: encouraging the government to give homeless shelters an allowance to buy sanitary care. Often, shelters do have these items on stock, but women don’t know about it or are too embarrassed to ask.
A right, not a privilege
Also worldwide more and more organisations help homeless women to manage their menstruation. In the USA, where close to 40% of all homeless people are women, news site Bustle created an impressive documentary about being homeless and on your period. One that’s worth to watch, and to share. Because for every share up to 250, the news site donates a pair of period-proof underwear via Distributing Dignity in New Jersey. This organisation provides basics such as bras, pants and pads to women in need. And helps them with business clothes when they have a job interview. Also in the States: the #happyperiod project, which supplies women who live on the streets with menstrual hygiene kits.
An Australian initiative is Speak Out for the Leak Out. This campaign aims to raise the awareness of hygiene for homeless women. The Melbourne Period Project provides homeless women with packs that contain tampons, pads and hand sanitiser. A similar project in Australia, which helps the homeless managing their menstruation, is Share the Dignity. Their slogan: sanitary items should be a right, not a privilege.
Because menstruation isn’t the most comfortable time of the month. Not when you have access to a nice hot bath, loads of chocolate and fresh underwear, and definitely not when you have to clean yourself with cold water in a dirty public bathroom. Women shouldn’t be forced to choose between buying lunch or buying sanitary pads. And there should certainly be no need to stuff newspapers in your pants to soak up the blood.