Ever had that moment where you’ve got your period at the most inconvenient time? The scramble to find a pad or tampon can set you into panic when you least expect it.
But what if that moment was something you had to deal with every single month? Mother-of-three Sada Abdalla knows the feeling all too well.
“There were difficult decisions to make every day,” she says about searching for period products at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I remember going to the shops and I had to make the decision: should I buy food or should I buy pads? Food, yes, it is essential, but it was hard because I needed the pads most. I returned the food to the shelf to get the pads.”
Abdalla is a single-mum from the Swahili community in Leeds. She has two teenage daughters and is currently looking for a job while receiving Universal Credit. But she finds the money she gets doesn’t cover the essentials for her whole family.
“I remember there was a time I had to tell my daughter to use toilet roll and it wasn’t comfortable for her at all,” she says.
Abdalla says that as a mother, not being able to provide period products for her daughters makes her feel “weak”. Telling her daughter to use toilet paper or other methods was something she never wanted to do.
“Back home in Africa I would say yes it’s something that we do a lot but here in this country it was something new. It was like a dream. It was unreal,” she says.
“I didn’t want her to see my struggles,” she adds. “I just wanted her to be a child, not to be adult like me. I didn’t want her to experience that at all.”
A government scheme that launched in January 2020 providing free period products has seen over three quarters of state schools and colleges in England sign up. But more than a year and a half later, parents like Abdalla say what’s being provided is “not enough”.
“When they’re at school, they can only get it there, they can’t come home with it. So I have to provide more for them when they come home,” she says.
Having enough period products is something that is also on Abdalla’s teenage daugter’s mind. “The scheme is helpful because it’s free and you can get it whenever you need it. But they won’t be giving out packets, they only give you one when you need it,” says the 16-year-old.
Abdalla’s daughter says she doesn’t like seeing her mum struggle and that it’s down to “luck” if they have enough products each month. “Sometimes it can get really difficult because there’s a lot of girls in our family so we’ll need more and more. My sister struggles with her period because she gets it more often so it costs a lot and the money just keeps adding up,” she says.
But together they want to work to break the taboo and stigma around periods.
Abdalla volunteers for a charity called Freedom4Girls to make sure other women in her community have access to period products. She says the project has especially helped people during the pandemic and when schools are closed.
Freedom4Girls founder, Tina Leslie, says she worries about the lack of awareness about the government scheme and adds that she still has schools approaching her needing help with period products.
“The major worry is the government are going to turn around and say the scheme hasn’t worked so they’re going to pull it. We just don’t want that because we’ll be back to square one again,” says Leslie.
“There’s more kids now on free school meals and really struggling than there ever has been before. It’s those kids that really need those products in schools. In lockdown, we increased our provision four-fold from providing 500 packs a month to 2,000.”
Currently, schools have to opt-in to the scheme to access free period products, but Leslie thinks that all schools should be provided with them instead of the opt-in process. And she’s seeing other problems arise from the scheme too.
“Telling the pupils in the schools that they have got them – that’s another issue we’re seeing,” she says. “Schools that don’t need them are giving them back to us and schools that do need them aren’t ordering them.”
Leslie says it’s great the the scheme also includes reusable products and menstrual cups, but that education around these alternative products needs to improve. And she thinks the scheme shouldn’t stop at schools and colleges.
“We’ve found that woman from the ages of 18 to 50 are far more likely to need products than schoolgirls,” she says. ”Everybody needs products. Why can’t everybody have access to them.”
It’s estimated that tens of millions of people in the UK are living below the poverty line. And for Leslie, if a person can’t afford food, they can’t afford period products either.
HuffPost UK emailed the Department of Health and Social Care about the specific issues raised by interviewees. In a response, a spokesperson said: “No pupil should ever have to miss school because of their period. More than three quarters of state secondary schools and colleges in England accessed period products using the Government’s scheme during its first year. Menstruation and puberty are also now part of our new, compulsory Relationships Sex and Health Education (RSHE) at both primary and secondary level”.
For their part, Abdalla and her teenage daughter are working on de-stigmatising periods in their community so that more people will be able to get help.
“It is tough and we are not alone,” she says. “We don’t know when this is going to end but it will end. I know we have to struggle today but we will get through the tunnel.”