The Big Red Taboo: #PeriodPoverty in the 21st Century

Period Poverty is an overlooked but insidious gendered inequality facing society. Katy Flynn speaks to some of those affected and lifts the lid on this hidden problem.

Sitting in the office of Angela Vance, a support worker for Lodging House Mission, I’m having a surprisingly candid and personal conversation. It’s not every day I go and sit with strangers and talk about periods, let alone period poverty – a problem that affects not only the nearly 13,000 homeless women in Scotland, but also women on low incomes or living in poverty.

The Lodging House Mission is a Glasgow based charity providing support for the homeless, vulnerable and socially excluded; Mary and Sue*, two friends, are two of its service users. They stand huddled in their padded parka coats, looking nervously around when Angela asks them if they’d come into the office for five, ten minutes for a chat about – of all things – menstruation.

“What about Maggie, would she no?” asks Mary nervously, wringing her hands ever so slightly. Sue looks on quietly, clearly a little apprehensive about the subject.

“I don’t think she takes a period anymore,” replies Angela. Mary and Sue, still slightly hesitant, come in. I smile benignly as they sit down.

Soon we’re all a little more relaxed, smiling and swapping stories about ruined mattresses, and debating the benefits of tampons over towels and vice versa. It’s still not an easy topic though, period poverty. Although Mary and Sue receive support from the Lodging House Mission, they’ve fortunately never been homeless. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t seen hardship. I ask Sue if she’s ever had to go without sanitary towels or tampons because she couldn’t afford them – if she’s ever had to choose between feeding herself and her children and keeping herself clean. “Oh aye,” she says,

“Many a times I’ve no had any and I’ve had to use a cloth or something. My dinner would come first, the weans come first.”

Angela sits across from me, behind her desk. Over her shoulder, I can see a cupboard in which Angela keeps the tampons and sanitary towels donated for the women who use the centre’s services. Much like the products themselves are hidden away in Angela’s cupboard, period poverty is for the most part still a hidden issue in Scotland.

“[The homeless population]’s predominately male, it always has been,” Angela confirms, “but there are still homeless females.” Indeed, while 46% of the 34,662 households who made homelessness applications to a Scotland’s local authorities last year were made up of single men, 21% were made up of single women and 16% of women who were single parents. “I have things to give to them and I’m pretty sure the other homeless drop-ins do as well.”

Even if homeless women can access tampons and sanitary towels, the lack of a place to stay means that women are forced to only take what they can carry. “They maybe just take what they need off you that day,” said Angela, “if it’s tampons they’ll maybe take a couple more ‘cause they’re easier to carry about, but even at that, it’s difficult.” There are also health implications around limited or no access to sanitary products – if women are unable to change sanitary products, especially tampons, for longer periods of time, then it could increase risks of conditions such as Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Even the social taboo about sanitary products and periods can be a barrier to access. “Some of them can be a bit embarrassed about men hearing that they need ‘women’s things’ remarks Angela. “It’s still quite a taboo subject.” Along with other hidden costs – the cost of replacing blood stained clothes, bedsheets or sleeping bags – period poverty seems to be adding up to one big pain in the uterus.

Lodging House Mission and similar charities rely on donations, but if women don’t know that these services are available, or if lack of funding or donations means that charities can no longer provide these services, then Scotland’s homeless and impoverished women could be left caught in the period poverty trap.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon is one woman looking to change that. In her address to the Scottish Parliament at the end of September, Ms Lennon said that “this distressing gendered inequality is one that must be confronted” by Parliament. Clearly passionate about the cause, she was happy to answer questions via email.  “Through speaking to food bank volunteers,” Ms Lennon writes, “and other organisations it became clear that whilst there isn’t a lot of data/research available, anecdotally the same themes kept reoccurring.

Mums going without sanitary products to make sure their children had food; foodbanks not getting regular donations of sanitary products/toiletries. I see no reason why individual local authorities, employers, hospitals, colleges etc can’t proceed and introduce free products if they want to. But because I want all women and girls to have equity of access, the Scottish Government has to take the lead.”

Some women are already beginning to take things into their own hands, setting up societies with universities like GU Red Alert, who recently conducted a washbag campaign, donating the washbags to the Simon Community. However, as Ms Lennon says, it will take legislation to eradicate period poverty.

Wrapping up and saying good bye, Angela ponders the possibility of putting up a poster in the female toilets of LHM’s premises, letting women know that they can ask Angela for tampons and sanitary towels.

It’s a scary thought, that people are having to make these choices. I’ll be thinking more about people when I hand them their sanitary towels and their Tampax now.”

Mary and Sue have been comfortable chatting, but tighten up a bit when I bring it back to formalities and ask if I can check the spellings of names. Their reluctance to give me a last name is a reminder that, no matter how open our conservation has been, the stigma of talking about periods is a deep-seated one.

*Names have been changed.

Artwork: Coleen Campbell, Instagram – @gazehounds

More in the Big Red Taboo series:

Why institutions should take on the burden of menstruation by Alisa Wylie

Profile: Glasgow University’s Red Alert by Alisa Wylie