All over the world there are increasing social movements bringing attention to women's difficulties surrounding menstruation, but despite this, it is still a highly sensitive and often taboo subject, which is not openly discussed. In the developing world, the difficulties which females face when it comes to managing their periods are often debilitating, with tens of millions of girls missing school each month the shame and humiliation of lack of affordable sanitary products is fuelled by the combination of stigma, poverty and misinformation.
Here in the UK, where the sting of homelessness is only too familiar, the situation is just as devastating. Every day, as I step out of the station onto the freezing streets of Birmingham on my daily commute to university; the picture in several shop doorways of the heaped sleeping bags and blankets is just a small glimpse of that reality. It is the same picture, which, earlier last year lead me to volunteer with my local homeless project The Albert Street Project. Here, I learned something I feel ashamed to say had never previously crossed my mind; how difficult it is for a homeless woman when it comes to that time of the month.
Periods are not a great time of the month for any woman, but lack of affordable sanitary items amongst homeless and disadvantaged women can make the burden of menstruation more like a nightmare. As a woman myself, it pained me to learn that this same vulnerable group sometimes have to find cloths or other absorbent items to use to protect themselves from bleeding, in most cases this is toilet paper sought from public restrooms. In other cases, women may get hold of a few tampons but have to make them last the entire length of their bleeding. All of this is often compounded by minimal access to safe sanitary spaces such as showers to wash or change. Add in a dose of the stigma which surrounds periods, and it's not difficult to imagine why this leads to the perfect cocktail of shame and humiliation, each and every month. What concerned me even more than this emotional impact, where dignity is so far fetched for these women, was the impact on their health; there can be dangerous, even deadly consequences when unhygienic alternatives or overused sanitary products can carry a risk of such awful infections.
Of course, with the added 5% tax that accompanies their current luxury item classification, sanitary products do not come cheap. While homeless women take the hardest hit, the financial burden of menstruation can have catastrophic implications in many other groups of women and girls who are living in or on the brink of poverty in this country. As a woman whose already overstretched budget is facing the choice between paying an essential bill or feeding the children, what happens when you come on your period?
This is why I spent last night with an incredible and compassionate group of women, making menstrual care packs to gift to those females across the Midlands who are in difficult circumstances.
This was part of The Homeless Period initiative I recently launched, which calls upon the public for donations of sanitary products, fresh underwear and baby wipes. So far, the heart-warming level of support we have received has allowed us to source over 450 care packages currently on their way out to various shelters and women's refuges across the midlands as well as our continuing weekly distributions with The Albert St project.
The support so far has meant that our donations can do more than provide a short term fix to the problem, but rather we are being able to present shelters with long term supplies of care packages, so that women who otherwise struggled can now plan ahead and equip themselves fully when it comes to this critical aspect of their health.
As sanitary products, along with bras and fresh underwear are some of the least frequently donated items to homeless causes, and in the absence of any current legislation to provide shelters with these tools, the giving of a small gift of these items to your local shelter will not only be an invaluable way to help a less fortunate woman, but also helps to shine a light on a global issue which still goes so undocumented. It is a small but important step to begin to meet such a crucial need for the many thousands of other women and adolescent girls who this affects, and, for the rest of us, takes some of the squeamishness out of addressing menstruation.